Vanilla pods are one of the best ingredients a baker can have – with a sweet, spicy and perfumed aroma and a woody or smokey flavour – they are often key for making desserts such as cakes, biscuits, panna cotta and ice-cream.
Not particularly nice looking – they're dark-brown, thin, and wrinkly – but don't let that put you off. These long pods contain the seeds from the vanilla orchid plant and are filled with a much sought-after delicate, floral flavour.
Real vanilla is actually the second most expensive spice after saffron due to its labour-intensive cultivation.
Each plant must be pollinated individually by hand, then cured in the sun for several days, raised to high temperatures and 'sweated' in cloth to achieve the complex balance of sugars and aromatics.
Finally, they are dried and straightened out for several weeks. This entire process transforms the green seed pods into the ones we buy – typically dried and wrinkly.
Where can you find them?
You'll find them in Sainsbury's, Waitrose or Holland & Barrett, and online.
Vanilla pods can be used either whole or split to release the aromatic seeds and their powerful flavour. Bear in mind that when a recipe says to add the seeds of a vanilla pod, you need to extract the seeds from the pod rather than putting it in whole, as the seeds are where the real punchy flavour is; the flavour from the pod is a lot more subtle.
- With a sharp knife, slit the vanilla pod lengthways
- Scrape the seeds out with the knife tip
- Add the seeds to the dish you're cooking
How to keep vanilla pods
Vanilla pods have a really long shelf life so you needn't worry about storing them for a long time – even years – as long as they are in an air-tight container, preferable glass. You can also mix the seeds of the pod with sugar and use that to add to ingredients such as milk and cream for a lovely little touch of vanilla.
Using vanilla extract is a more economic option for bakers that can't afford to buy vanilla pods all the time. Here are our favourite dessert recipes with a touch of vanilla flavour:
Sweet recipes with vanilla extract: