Vanilla beans -- actually whole pods, with the beans inside -- are easy to use and add a wonderful hit of intense vanilla taste to any recipe that would normally use vanilla extract. When you see a recipe that calls for using or scraping a whole vanilla bean, you can substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla extract for each pod ... but using the bean pod itself is fun and the results are extremely tasty. Here's how to prepare and use a whole vanilla bean pod.
1. Look for whole vanilla bean pods sold in jars in the same spice section as vanilla extract. They ARE expensive, but don't worry, you'll use the whole thing.
2. Lay vanilla bean flat on a cutting board (unfold if necessary). Using the tip of a sharp knife, cut off the hard dried tip, than make a slit down the entire length of the bean.
3. Fold the edges back, revealing the pasty vanilla beans themselves -- each smaller than a grain of sand.
4. Use the back of your knife, or a spoon, to scrape the entire length of the bean, capturing all those tasty beans in a small blob. Add to your pie crust, cake batter, or anything else you're baking; mix well to distribute.
5. Don't toss the husk! Chop it up into 1-inch pieces and add it to a cup of granulated sugar; over several days, it will flavor the sugar nicely (mix every so often to distribute flavor). Or add to plain vodka and let sit for several weeks, stirring occasionally, to make your own vanilla extract.