Tuesday, December 16, 2008

(Relatively) Inexpensive Vanilla Beans

I've been finding these vanilla beans at my local Costco recently--they come in glass tubes with six beans (or pods, as they're sometimes called) per tube. The package comes with two tubes and I think it's $13 or so. This means that using vanilla beans is not much more expensive than using vanilla extract.

A lot of people probably don't know what to do with whole vanilla beans, but they're super easy to deal with. They can be easily used in any recipe where liquids are involved--creams, custards, puddings, and the like. The main thing to know is that you need to split the bean lengthwise and then scrape the inside part with the back of a knife to extract the pulp, which consists of lots of little black specks--the same little specks (or grains) you see in good quality vanilla ice cream or in creme brulee.

So, in any recipe where you're scalding milk or cream, simply toss the black pulp into it as it comes up to temp. Throw the spent pod in there too, for good measure. It's still got lots of flavor in it.

Or don't. You can also save the scraped bean and bury it in a container filled with granulated sugar, and in a week or so, you'll have some really nice vanilla sugar. You could also slip it into a bottle of vodka. Nice.

The thing about having vanilla beans available for such a good price, is that you can use them to add a little decadence in spots where you wouldn't have thought to do that previously. I've taken to using them in oatmeal. I use half a bean for a pot of oatmeal that will serve the three of us (Nora's only four months old, so she's not quite ready for oatmeal). And the vanilla really adds a lushness and richness to a bowl of oatmeal.

Having them around has also served as inspiration to cook things I don't usually make. I just up and decided to make creme brulee one day, just because I stumbled upon the little torch someone gave me for Christmas one year and I knew that my trusty vanilla beans would be up to the challenge. Take a look:

This week, I'm planning on making chocolate pudding from scratch and I'll certainly be adding some of my wonderfully fragrant vanilla to that as well.

I'm not being paid by these people or anything. I just like finding a good product that sells for a good price. It's a thrill. I almost feel like I should stock up while I can--that they can't possibly keep selling these things for the price they're asking. Get'em while you can, especially now that we're full-on into holiday baking season.

For those who are interested, I found them at the Costco in Niles off of Touhy. They're marketed by a company called Rodelle Vanilla, which, I see after Googling them, is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beans are being sold as "Bourbon Madagascar" Vanilla beans and the package looks like this:

Incidentally, for those that care about this kind of arcana, "Bourbon" doesn't refer to the alcohol, but to the specific cultivar that is grown in Madagascar, which produces almost 60% of the world's supply of vanilla. Interestingly, the orchids from which the vanilla beans are harvested are indiginous to Central America--more specifically, Mexico and Guatemala--but today, although Mexico still cultivates vanilla orchids to produce the beans for market, some 85% of the world's vanilla is produced by Madagascar and Tahiti.

Vanilla is a subtle flavor, and it's one that's nearly ubiquitous in processed sweets, but real vanilla flavor isn't nearly as common. Artificial vanilla products contain artificial vanillin, a synthetic substance that's produced as a by-product of paper production and also in the coal-tar industry. Vanillin is the lead note of vanilla flavor, but while artificial vanilla contains only a few flavor components, natural vanilla contains more than 200 organic components in addition to vanillin.

So it's worth going the extra mile and getting the real deal. You probably won't be knocked over the head by the difference, but the flavor of the finished product you use it in will seem to be richer, rounder, and more fully-developed. It's one of those flavors that everyone is completely familiar with, to the point of thinking of it as bland, boring, and, well...."vanilla", yet very few people have actually stopped to consider it--to really taste it.

1 comment:

James said...

Vanilla vodka? Now that's an idea worth trying, maybe vanilla, gin, sugar & letitmature for a month - I mean what can you do with a mountain of vanilla sugar anyway?