Whole vanilla bean pods are long, thin, and pliable. They have a rich, dark brown color with a smooth and shiny surface. A fresh, high-quality pod should be slightly moist to the touch and have an inviting fragrance that is sweet, floral, and slightly spicy.
When used for extractions or infusions, vanilla beans are usually sliced open lengthwise to expose the tiny seeds inside. The interior of the bean is also scraped to collect the seeds, which are moist and clump together like a grainy paste.
In cooking, whole vanilla beans are a popular ingredient in various cuisines, adding a depth of flavor beyond what can be achieved with vanilla extract. Bakers and confectioners love using them in desserts, where the tiny seeds create beautiful flecks that add visual appeal. Whole vanilla beans are also used in savory dishes, such as sauces and marinades, to add a touch of sweetness that balances out other flavors.
French cuisine often utilizes vanilla, making it hard to find a classic French dessert without it. From crème brûlée to vanilla ice cream, vanilla beans add a touch of elegance to every dish. They are also used in savory dishes such as coq au vin to add depth and complexity to sauces.
Indian cooking also frequently incorporates vanilla. From sweet dishes like kheer to savory dishes like chicken tikka masala, vanilla beans add a unique flavor that sets them apart. If you've tried traditional Indian desserts like kulfi, you know just how much a hint of vanilla can enhance the taste of a sweet treat.