Few culinary ingredients evoke more passion or have the sensual complexity of vanilla. In its direct, pure state, it is like heavenly ambrosia. More often, it is the secret ingredient which compliments other spices and flavors, putting the final balancing touch to a dessert, pastry or the occasional savory dish.
Most of us have experienced vanilla through extract, a process that produces vanilla flavor through a medium of alcohol or glycerin. The cheaper varieties are not even real vanilla, but a synthetic flavoring called vanillin. When purchasing vanilla extract, I suggest making sure it is made from pure vanilla beans.
The modern culinary revolution in America has increased awareness of long treasured, and often rare, culinary staples. One of indispensable products used in high-end cuisine are vanilla beans, or more botanically correct: vanilla pods. Not long ago I was contacted by a long-time friend living in South India who now lived on a farm and was growing Ayurvedic herbs as a livelihood. He was also growing vanilla and wanted to know if I was interested in his crop. When I asked whether the vanilla was organic, he described his product:
“I sun dry them, so they are organic sun dried vanilla pods. Or beans as most people call them. Vanilla is from the orchid family and the bean is actually a seed pod. You have to sun dry them and keep them wrapped in cotton and a wool blanket in a wooden box at night so they ferment. This fermentation brings out the aroma. Some big producers probably use some type of hot air blower in a warehouse to dry them.”
I agreed to purchase his crop and am now selling these wonderful heavenly pods. If you are interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once you get the vanilla, my friend offers further suggestions:
“You can make an extraction out of some also with alcohol, I have heard that even Stoli vodka works. A friend of mines’ wife also told me she put some with the flour she bakes with for three weeks and it worked good. I am sure you know about putting it with sugar, coffee, etc. Cut length wise and keep in glass jar with sugar for three weeks.”
I usually prep the pods by cutting a slit lengthwise and scraping out the black vanilla paste to add to recipes. I save the scraped pods and add them to jars of organic sugar, Grand Marnier or other infusible product. After 2 to 3 weeks, the infused product is as strong as vanilla extract. It makes the expense of the pods economical compared to the price of a good quality extract.