This is one of my favorite ingredients and essential in the pastry kitchen. Vanilla beans come from the fruit of an orchid and are not cheap, second only to saffron in costly spices. So, you want to pick a good one and use the whole thing, pod and seeds. The beans should be soft, oily and have an intense vanilla aroma. Avoid a bean that has no luster, is dry and brittle.
Here is an overview of a few different types of vanilla beans:
Mexican beans are the original and most highly prized beans. They have a mellow, smooth, quality and a spicy, woody fragrance.
Madagascar Bourbon beans are long and slender, with a very rich taste and smell, have thick, oily skin, contain an abundance of tiny seeds, and have a strong vanilla aroma. They are also considered high quality bean and reflect this in the cost. This is where most the worlds vanilla come from. The name refers to the region they are grown and is not at all related to the booze.
Tahitian beans are usually shorter, plumper, and contain a higher oil and water content than Bourbon beans. The skin is thinner, they contain fewer seeds, and the aroma is fruity and floral. They are often described as smelling like licorice, cherry, prunes, or wine.
You will have to get your hands on them all and decide for yourself which is your favorite. There are others, but they are hard to come by, if this changes I will update the post.
You want to store your vanilla beans in a airtight container, in a cool, dark spot. If you buy them in bulk and won’t be using them all at once you can throw them in the freezer to prevent them from drying out.
How to use a vanilla bean
To maximize the vanilla bean you want to cut the pod in half, lengthwise with a paring knife.
Scrape out all of the oily seeds from the inside to use in your recipe. You will have flecks of vanilla throughout, which will infuse the dish with vanilla.
You can either throw the whole vanilla bean, once it is cut, into the recipe or you can just use the scraped seeds and save the pod for another use later. The most efficient way to get the flavor from the vanilla is to add it to something warm, which helps to disperse the seeds and the oils. If you are using vanilla bean in a pound cake or other recipe that does not call for you to cook the bean in a hot liquid, then just scrape out and use the seeds. You will want to add them when you are creaming the butter so they incorporate well. (I submerge the unused pods in sugar to make vanilla scented sugar.)
Once a pod has been used I wash them off and then dry them out in a bowl that sits above my stove. I blend them with sugar in a food processor and then put it through a sieve. It is a wonderful way to scent the sugar and use every part of the vanilla bean.
This sugar can be used in any recipe you want a vanilla flavor and it is wonderful in coffee and tea.
See my post on making homemade vanilla extract.