Q: I recently purchased some very nice vanilla beans at a new market in my area. What is the best way to store them? The last ones I purchased were fairly stiff before I got a chance to use them.
Andrew Maselli, Chicago
A: I posed your question to Craig Nielsen, chief executive officer of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan, Ill. He says a really stiff bean is one that is starting to dry out and has lost some of its essential oils —those oils that convey flavor and fragrance.
“Gourmet vanilla beans should be pliable enough so you can tie it into a knot,” he says.
Nielsen recommends storing vanilla beans in a tightly sealed container, either a glass jar or double bagged in plastic bags. Keep the bean away from light or heat — a dark cabinet at room temperature is best. Do not refrigerate the beans, he says, because they can get moldy.
Vanilla flavor can be found in both the bean and the seeds inside it. To use the seeds, split the bean lengthwise with a sharp knife and scrap out the seeds with the back of the knife. The bean pod can be simmered to flavor a liquid, such as milk for a custard. But don’t discard the bean, advises Nielsen-Massey’s website (nielsenmassey.com): “As long as the bean still possesses its characteristic aroma and is moist and pliable, you can rinse, dry and use it again.”
Nielsen says the average vanilla bean can be used two or three times. After that, he recommends cutting up the bean and sticking it in some sugar. Let it sit for a couple of weeks to flavor and perfume the sugar.