Why are vanilla beans and extract so expensive? We are often asked this question. A member of the orchid family, the vanilla flower is the only one of 350 species of orchids to produce an edible product. The first harvest of the vine does not occur for at least 3 years, giving a maximum harvest after about 8 years. When the flower on the vine blossoms, it must be hand-pollinated during the one or two days in which it blooms. It takes 4-9 months for the vanilla pods to mature and they are picked just as their color changes from green to yellow. Because these beans are so valuable (especially in light of some of the extremely poor economic areas in which they are grown), the vanilla beans are branded while still green. Much like cattle ranchers, each farmer has his own brand which is formed by inserting pins into a cork and imprinted on the vanilla bean while still young, so it will remain on the bean when it is ready for sale. When the green beans are initially picked, they do not have any flavor. The processes for curing the beans vary in different locations: this results in subtle, but noticeable differences in the flavor of the vanilla bean. In Madagascar, the beans are hung in curing sheds to lose some initial moisture, then they spend 2-3 months being spread in the sunshine during the day and packed into cooling boxes at night. This maintains just the right amount of enzymatic reaction to produce the desired color and flavor. Much like winemaking, this is really an art that a master must practice.
In making custard, the vanilla bean is usually cut in half, then allowed to steep in the milk or cream. 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. You can also add a vanilla bean to your box of powdered sugar: excellent for rolling warm cookies in, and lending fine flavor to buttercream frosting.