How to Open and Use a Fresh Vanilla Bean

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I’m happy so many of you loved the mango lassi recipe I shared this week! Since I posted it, I’ve had a few questions via email about working with fresh vanilla (which the recipe calls for). I thought I’d give you all a quick tutorial, as well as some details and serving suggestions for this wonderful ingredient.

It’s funny that, when something strikes as as bland or ordinary, we might call it “vanilla.” The implication is that vanilla things pale in comparison to their bolder chocolate counterparts; they lack flavor where chocolate oozes it. To me, vanilla is one of the most wonderful flavors there is. It is complex, rich, and elegant, all at once, and it is anything but bland. In fact, in spite of my adoration of chocolate itself, I prefer vanilla flavored ice cream to chocolate substantially.

Recipes that call for vanilla as a major ingredient—especially beverages—are greatly improved by the use of fresh vanilla bean in place of vanilla extract. Vanilla extracts are not all created equal; some are very high quality, and they create incredible taste. But fresh vanilla bean is incomparably rich and exotic, which somewhat justifies its rather steep price tag. There are a lot of foods I used to spend money on (back when I was gainfully employed) that I can’t or won’t anymore; I can’t remember the last time I purchased lucuma, for example, even though it’s an ingredient I really enjoy as a “luxury.” But vanilla is so ubiquitous and so versatile in recipes, and fresh vanilla bean is so special, that I think vanilla beans are worth investing in if you’re able. You can find them on Amazon at $15.75 for 1/4 pound, or $23.75 for 1/2 of a pound (a pretty good deal). You can also find them on Nuts.com (a wonderful resource for raw, organic nuts, seeds, and fruits, that also boasts really good customer service) at $18.00 for 1/4 pound.

Opening a vanilla bean is actually very simple—compared to opening a young thai coconut, it’s a piece of (vanilla) cake! First, lay your bean out on a cutting board:

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Trim off the very ends:

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Next, slice the vanilla bean down the center using a sharp paring knife. You don’t necessarily want to slice it all the way through (though it’s fine if you do); you want to slice open the top of it.

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Pry open the vanilla bean to expose the seeds inside:

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And then use a spoon to scrape along the bean and collect the seeds (you can use the side of a knife for this, too!)

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And from there, you can use the seeds as needed. If you only need half the seeds of a bean, simply cut the bean in half before you cut it open.

Vanilla bean can be used in tons of different kinds of vegan recipes, from smoothies to puddings to cake. Vanilla can also work nicely in some soups—it’s not only a sweet ingredient! And if you’re keen on preserving the seeds, or bringing out some of their flavor, you can steep them in alcohol to make your own vanilla extract. For real.

Hope this inspires you to play around with vanilla beans at home. And if this post was helpful, check out some of my other tutorials!

How to open a young Thai coconut

How to build a meal sized salad

How to make a collard wrap

How to make homemade almond milk

How to make homemade fermented nut cheese

Tomorrow, a recipe that puts the wonderful vanilla bean to good use.

xo

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    29 Comments
  1. What a great website!
    Aren’t these actually fermented whole beans? I read somewhere that the raw, green beans, haven’t much flavor, or not good flavor, or something.
    We used to poke a bean into cream for a few hours, or overnight, to ready it for whipping.
    The beans seem very expensive now, and putting the whole pod into sugar, syrup or cream yields a lot of flavor, doesn’t leave any color … or “use up” the pod!

  2. I just tried your links and the prices seem to have skyrocketed. The half pound of vanilla beans listed for $300 and the quarter pound for $159. Where do you get your vanilla beans now, or have you had to give up using them? Thanks. I’m glad you posted this article. It costs $11/bean at my local grocery store and I just cannot afford that and so I’m grateful to have instructions on how to use vanilla extract. (Which I also note has jumped in price in the last 5 years.)

  3. Good day! How long would the unused half vanilla pod last? I’m planning on using only half a vanilla pod, but I’m not sure how long a pod would last.

    • In an airtight container in the fridge, I think it could last for at least a week. A lot of folks store them in sugar or in vodka (!) to use them as infusers 🙂

  4. thanks so much for posting this! Very helpful….I quit using vanilla extract b/c of the alcohol and most extracts have gluten, which I can’t have. So I decided to try this for my smoothies and baking. Only question I have: how do I know how much to use for recipes that call for a tsp of extract?

  5. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well
    written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and come back to
    read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post.
    I will definitely return.

  6. Don’t throw out the empty bean pod! I have used them to flavor sugar as mentioned above, or put in vodka to flavor the bottle, or my favorite is to add to a big batch of chai tea. I have also used when heating almond milk

  7. Thanks for the tutorial. Reminds me to use vanilla more often. Great technique to get the essence, and I agree better than just buying extract.

  8. I can’t wait for your recipe, I bought a batch of these last night and I’m ready for a new recipe!
    Looking to make something delicious.

  9. Thank you for taking the trouble to write this post. V useful.

    On a shamefully girly and unrelated note, always love to see the nail colours you wear. Your turquoise reminds me of Iced Gems (mini biscuits from the 70s that you wouldn’t remember – may just be a UK invention…). Anyway… apologies for the digression..

  10. I’ve always been a vanilla enthusiast too! I by just-arrived fresh madagascar vanilla beans at The Spice House which I can count on to be uber selective re. vendors; they buy direct from growers and grind their own spices/herbs in house daily. I then chop up the entire bean simply b/c it’s easier – def. worth it for making extra yummy almond milk/smoothies.

    I much prefer the whole bean to even the highest quality extract in uncooked recipes b/c I detect a faint alcohol-ish flavor (apparently I have a vanilla-sensitive palate?) taints the pure vanilla-ness. I’ve tried the granulated/dry variety which lacks the alcohol, but is comparatively weak in flavor, requiring a full tablespoon to achieve a decent outcome. Given that “real” vanilla in any form is pricey, it’s worth it for me to splurge on the beans – which I buy in small quantities at a time to ensure maximum freshness.

    FYI – The Spice House ships out-of-state..I can’t recommend their huge selection spices/herbs highly enough!

  11. Thank you for the information on Amazon.com I will make a purchase there. In my area we are limited for affordable vanilla beans. Costco has a good deal but are very seasonal. The price on Amazon beats Costco hands down! Thanks again!

  12. I love the flavor vanilla extract adds to smoothies and avocado pudding, and I’m sure that fresh vanilla beans would be even better! Thanks for the tutorial!

  13. Hi Gena – I use whole, uncut vanilla beans in my smoothies. Sometimes I chop them up a bit by hand, but not always. Am I ingesting something that I shouldn’t?

    • Nope! Ani Phyo says she does the same. But you need a Vitamix to grind them up, and some of my readers don’t have them–plus this is a method for using beans in recipes other than smoothies. Fear not 🙂