If you want the purest, most intense vanilla flavor in your recipes, use whole vanilla beans rather than extract. The best-quality beans come from Mexico, Madagascar, and Indonesia.
If you have a choice at the market, choose beans that are plump and pliable. Squeeze the beans, if possible, to feel that they are dense, somewhat squishy and not at all brittle. Also give them a sniff if you can; the fragrance should be heady and unmistakably vanilla. Sometimes vanilla beans are speckled with a pale, whitish dust. This is simply crystallized vanillin—the substance that gives them their flavor—and is nothing to worry about. According to Penzeys Spices, the longer the bean, the better the flavor. Since fresh beans lose flavor and fragrance as they dry out, buy only what you need and shop at a market with good turnover.
Store vanilla beans in an airtight container in a cool, dark space along with your other spices. The small glass cylinders that some beans come in are ideal for storage, but a zip-top bag or an empty spice jar can work, too. (Fold the bean in half to store; if it’s too brittle to fold, it’s old.) Properly stored, vanilla beans will keep for two to three months.
The deepest vanilla flavor is found in the seeds—the dark, sticky pulp inside the bean. To extract the seeds, set the bean on a flat surface and follow the directions in the photos at right. Once you’ve extracted the seeds, there are a few ways to use them (and the scraped pod):
• Infuse a liquid with the bean and seeds. Drop the seeds and the scraped pod into warm liquid, such as scalded milk or cream, and leave them to infuse for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour. Strain the pod from the liquid (the tiny specks of vanilla seeds will remain). Use the flavored liquid for your recipe.
• Alternatively, add the scraped seeds directly to a batter. For example, add the seeds to the butter and sugar before creaming when making cookies.
• Add a small piece of a split bean (no need to scrape first) to a savory stew at the beginning of cooking. This is especially good in rich shellfish dishes or highly spiced meat dishes.
It’s hard to give an exact conversion for replacing vanilla extract with vanilla bean in a recipe because beans vary in intensity. As a guideline, however, a 2-inch piece of vanilla bean (halved and scraped) equals about 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.