Lending perfume, depth and nuance to a wide variety of dishes, including some savory ones, vanilla is one of the West's prime flavors for ice creams, cookies, cakes, custards, pastry cream and puddings. It may be used either in its whole-bean form or as vanilla extract, a commercial product made by chopping the beans, soaking them in a mixture of alcohol and water, and then aging the solution. Because the beans are hand pollinated and hand picked, they are expensive, but they may be reused several times.
Whole beans, which are sold in bulk or packaged singly in plastic cylinders, are available in natural-food stores, specialty-food stores and some supermarkets. They should be moist and pliable. The best-quality beans will develop a natural coating of vanillin, a white powder. Of the three most common kinds—Tahitian, Mexican and Bourbon-Madagascar—the Mexican and Bourbon-Madagascar beans are more strongly scented, while Tahitian are more delicate. Mexican beans are in short supply, however, while Bourbon-Madagascar beans make up about three-fourths of the total supply.
The best vanilla extracts identify the type of bean used. Buy only pure vanilla extract, not imitation vanilla, which is made of artificial flavorings and has an inferior taste. Vanilla powder, the ground vanilla bean, is available by mail order and from some specialty-food stores. Some cooks prefer it because its flavor does not dissipate when it is heated.
Vanilla beans sold in a plastic cylinder should be kept in the cylinder, and loose beans should be placed in an airtight jar. Keep in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. The tightly capped extract keeps indefinitely stored in a cool, dark place.
Use the whole bean, or cut the bean in half lengthwise with a small, sharp knife, scrape out the seeds, and add them, with the pod, to the liquid in the dish you are preparing. Some recipes will instruct you to steep the vanilla bean first. After use, rinse and dry whole beans, store as above and reuse.
When adding vanilla extract to hot food, first let the food cool for a few minutes. When the extract is added to hot food, the alcohol evaporates, taking with it some of the vanilla flavor.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)