I don’t know if it’s the rain, the wind, or the fact that Bake-Off is back, but I’ve recently been struggling with the urge to bake. This has led to me actually making exactly one batch of potato chip cookies, yes, but it’s mostly translated into me reading about baking. Most of that writing has been by Stella “The Bravetart” Parks, of Serious Eats.
It is impossible to read a Parks article and not come away with a new understanding of not only how to do something, but why you do it that way. The same can be said of her tweets throughout the years, such as this one:
Sticking a vanilla bean in sugar does absolutely nothing to extract its water-soluble compounds, so flavor is weak. https://t.co/FbyI9HFbZr— Stella Parks (@BraveTart) January 30, 2018
Tossing a spent vanilla bean in a jar of sugar is an old, oft-suggested “hack” with a simple premise: After scraping out the innards of a pricey vanilla bean, you toss the empty pod into a container with some sugar, and the sugar will “absorb” the vanilla flavour.
This is, as Parks points out in her tweet, pure folly. Solid, crystalized sugar is unable to extract water-soluble (or ethanol-soluble) compounds. The container of sugar will emit a lovely vanilla aroma when you open it up, but the sugar crystals won’t have any vanilla flavour.
If you want to make true vanilla sugar, you’ll have to mix the innards of the bean with some sucrose (a food processor can help distribute the gooey seeds). And if you want to extract flavour from a scraped-out pod, you’ll have to get some dairy, or water, or alcohol involved.
Parks has many suggestions for what to do with these aromatic husks instead, but my usual spent pod mitigation strategy is to make vanilla fernet, which involves pouring amaro over the empty bean and letting it sit for a week or two. Whatever you do, make sure to get liquid involved; vanilla beans — even empty ones — are far too precious to waste on something that is merely scented, however pleasingly.