Vanilla is earthy. It is ethereal. It is exotic. It is indispensable in some recipes and, when added to others on a whim, seems essential. Also, it is expensive. A good whiff of pure vanilla should either make your head spin or compel you to dab a little behind your ears. And the beans, vanilla beans are the queens of the vanilla family; the ne plus ultra of flavoring.
A good vanilla bean should be plump and bendable. Dry beans would not give the flavor you yearn for, and paid for. The beans should feel moist, maybe even a little sticky, and if they have a silvery sheen, that is fine.
The most coveted part of the bean is the inner pulp, but the pod packs flavor too, and even after scraped out, the inner seeds or poached both pod and pulp, the pods have got more to give.
There's something special about going the extra mile and adding fresh vanilla to your recipes, especially when vanilla is the primary flavor. Many recipes call for scraping the vanilla pod of its seeds, a process that is simple but can get messy and wasteful.
Vanilla pods are the fruit of the vanilla orchid. Vanilla beans are one of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron which also shares its origins in an orchid.
Opening a vanilla pod:
Split the pod lengthwise into two halves: Assemble your cutting board, knife, and vanilla pod. Starting as close to the hook as possible, firmly run the tip of the paring knife down the length of the pod; you may need to repeat this step, if the pod did not completely split on the first try.
Scrape the pod halves: Still holding the hooked area down on the cutting board, run the unsharpened side of your knife down the length of each of the pod halves, using firm pressure. The dull side works perfectly to carefully but thoroughly scrape the seeds.
Use the seeds and save the pod: Go ahead and add the seeds to your recipe but do not throw away the pod. If your recipe requires a liquid, you can add the pod to the liquid to steep, further enhancing the vanilla flavor. This works especially well if the liquid has been heated.
Four things to do with spent pods:
Vanilla sugar (and salt): Spent beans are often dried and buried in a jar of sugar. Or the dried pods can be whirred in a blender or food processor with sugar. Similarly, vanilla salt – something more unusual, flavors cookies, sits atop perfectly on chocolate chips, butterscotch, or all-chocolate cookies, caramels, puddings, and more. Of course, the salt is also good on the savory side; try it on roasted carrots, lobster, shrimp, or sweet potatoes. If you want to go all out, whir the dried pods with some sea salt and then mix that salt with flake salt.
Pierced and poached fruit: Pods, dried or still fresh, are great for poaching fruit. To get the most flavor out of the pods and into the fruit, run the pods through the fruit – think skewer – and poach away. Vanilla is wonderful with almost every stone fruit as well as with apples, pears, and prunes. Oh, and do not forget to save the syrup. Depending on what spices you added, it might be nice to sweeten tea, serve over ice cream, or to poach more fruit.
Flavored coffee and tea: If you like vanilla coffee, save your pods to stir them in or add a pod to your coffee beans and grind them together. Steep the spent pod in tea with vanilla and honey.
Bath salts: Chop old vanilla beans, mix them with Epsom salts, add a splash of vanilla extract, and bath salts that are wildly aromatic, calming, and good for all that might ail you, is ready to use.
Medicinal benefits of Vanilla:
Ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations in South America were using vanilla extracts for their medicinal properties long before the first European conquerors arrived on the continent. They would grind fresh pods to create medicinal elixirs that relieved many symptoms of poor health. Today, the spice is gaining more attention as studies explore the anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties of vanilla and vanilla extract.
Some other health benefits of vanilla include:
Skin disorders: Antibacterial properties of vanillin, the chemical compound responsible for the strong aroma of the bean, helps cleanse skin problems such as pimples and acne. Moreover, antioxidant properties of vanilla help fight the damage caused by free radicals. It may even help slow signs of aging. The cosmetic industry uses vanilla both for its fragrance as well as anti-aging properties.
Burns: Traditionally, home remedies to heal burns, cuts, and wounds have used vanilla. However, it is perhaps unsafe to use concentrated vanilla extract or essential oil on recent burns. Topical treatments containing vanilla may prove beneficial; however, talk to your doctor before you try any home remedies or natural treatment for burns.
Coughing: Cough syrups often use vanilla flavoring to mask bitter tastes. Although there is little evidence to prove the effect of vanilla extract on coughing, the mild anesthetic properties may relieve symptoms such as pain from a sore throat or headache.
Toothache: Vanillin falls under the same category of vanilloids that include capsaicin from chili peppers and eugenols from spices such as cinnamon. Both these active compounds have an effect on the central nervous system. Capsaicin acts as a pain reliever, while eugenols work effectively as topical anesthetics. These mirroring properties in vanilla may help you fight a toothache and infection.
Stress: Vanilla extract from the vanilla bean comes pre-packed and ready to use. This concentrated version has a longer shelf life than the fresh beans or dried pods. Sniffing a few drops of vanilla extract is known to provide stress relief. In fact, neurological studies reveal that vanilla extract may prove useful in treatment of depression and anxiety disorders.
Digestion: Digestive problems maybe relieved by taking vanilla infused herbal tea. Drinking water boiled with vanilla beans is a traditional remedy for nausea, vomiting, and stomach upsets. The aroma of vanilla may help ease queasiness.
Inflammation: Vanilla may also prove effective in soothing inflammation as well due to its antioxidant properties. The supplement industry is also tapping into the medicinal properties of vanillin. While oral intake proves to be less effective since vanillin cannot stand the acidic properties of the stomach, pills or powders designed to withstand stomach acids are becoming popular.