A vanilla bean can take over a year to grow from flower to edible bean, and the entire process must be done by hand. The vanilla flower is a species of orchid that grows on a broad-leafed vine. Vanilla is the only member of the orchid family capable of producing an edible product. Once a vanilla seed germinates, it will take up to three years before the vine produces a flower. Vanilla orchid flowers will blossom and die within a 48-hour period, and must be carefully pollinated by hand or else no bean will grow. From there, the bean needs another 4-9 months for the vanilla pods to fully mature. The bean is ready to harvest when their color changes from green to yellow.
When the vanilla beans are initially harvested they do not present any flavor or aroma, it takes months of aging and curing for this to happen. The process for curing vanilla varies by region—this results in subtle, but noticeable differences in the flavor of the vanilla bean. Madagascar vanilla beans are hung in curing sheds to expel some initial moisture before they spend the next 2-3 months undergoing a special curing process. The beans are spread out in the sunshine during the day and packed into cooling sweat boxes at night. This maintains the perfect amount of enzymatic reaction to produce the desired color and flavor. Much like winemaking, this is an artform that takes years of practice to master.
To make vanilla custard, the gourmet vanilla bean is sliced in half longways and then steeped in milk or cream to infuse its flavor. Then the vanilla seeds are scraped out and added to the custard, while the remaining pod is removed. The leftover pod can be rinsed and dried, then added to your sugar canister for wonderful vanilla-flavored sugar. Many good cooks automatically flavor their sugar supply with one vanilla bean per cup of sugar. If you slice the vanilla bean down the middle and then into 1/4” pieces, the inner seeds become exposed and impart greater flavor to the sugar.