How do I properly care for and store my vanilla beans? Do I clean my vanilla beans when they arrive? How long do vanilla beans last if they are vacuum sealed? Ho do I know if my vanilla beans have gone bad?
These are some common questions that are discussed occasionally on our private Facebook group with thousands of at-home extract makers. While vanilla is sensitive to environmental changes (heat/cold, humidity/dryness, etc.) it is also naturally durable. Here are a few tips and answers to help you get the most out of every vanilla bean you receive, no matter where you buy it from.
Do I clean my vanilla beans when I receive them?
Generally, the answer is no. The vanilla bean pod is full of vanillin, the naturally-occurring oil that gives vanilla its sweet taste. Through the arduous process of harvesting vanilla beans the bean is heated, bacteria has been killed and the oils sweated out to give the vanilla its sweet aroma. Rinsing them in water or alcohol will remove some of the oils or dry the pod unnecessarily. In the occasional and infrequent instance where small imperfections are present, it may make sense to wipe the outside of the bean with a towel dampened with alcohol. (Discussed in more detail below.)
Care and Storage
When you receive your vanilla beans, we recommend that they are used quickly. If you are using the beans to make vanilla extract, it's a good practice to have the spirits and bottles before you buy the beans, so you can put the beans into the spirits immediately upon arrival. Do not remove the beans from their vacuum-sealed pouch until they are ready to be used. Once the pouch is opened, the clock is ticking.
Within their vacuum-sealed pouches, the vanilla beans can be stored for several months in a cool/dry place away from any direct sunlight. Do NOT store them in the refrigerator or freezer, as the cold temperature will increase the likelihood of mold. We have successfully stored vanilla beans for more than a year in our tests when vacuum sealed properly and stored in a cool/dry place.
Some of our vanilla pros store their vanilla beans in their vanilla extract spirits. By immediately submersing the vanilla beans in alcohol, you not only get the benefit of homemade vanilla extract, but you are also storing your whole beans in the safest possible place, since the alcohol kills and prohibits bacterial growth. Simply toss your new beans into a mother jar until you are ready to use them for vanilla sugar, vanilla paste or any other culinary treat that calls for whole vanilla beans or vanilla bean caviar.
Remember, your vanilla bean was harvested somewhere within the world's "Bean Belt" where average temperatures are always above 80F and humidity is high. From the bean belt, the beans are packaged and sent all around the world. We have shipped vanilla beans to northern Alaska in the middle of winter. Those extreme temperatures can have an impact on bean quality. Extreme temperature fluctuations can increase the likelihood of mold.
Has my vanilla gone bad?
A vanilla bean is an organic product and, like any organic product it can go bad. However, given the nature of the tough outer skin of the vanilla bean, it is surprisingly durable and usually salvageable.
Mold can occur as a result of temperature fluctuations and/or the inclusion of excess water or bacteria during the harvesting/drying process. Like any mold, the vanilla bean mold feeds on oxygen and bacteria so it can grow. Unlike molds on breads and cheeses, however, mold on a vanilla bean can be effectively removed by wiping the bean with a clean towel that has been dampened with vodka or white rum with a 35%+ alcohol content. Some users have used Everclear or stronger alcohols with positive results.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish mold from naturally occurring imperfections on the bean pod, or damage caused to the bean pod during harvesting. In addition, one bad bean does not necessarily mean that the entire batch is bad, but the entire batch should be inspected further if one bad bean is found.
Of course, if the mold appears to be substantial and if you are concerned about the quality of the bean, the bean should be discarded.
Here are some images of vanilla beans where the mold has grown substantially and the bean should probably not be used:
Vanilla beans that are vanillin rich may also show other signs that are "mold-like" but not mold at all, so be cautious when throwing out your beans. You don't want to discard a perfectly-healthy bean! In fact, the presence of these abnormalities often indicates a high quality vanilla bean.
One of these occurrences is a vanillin crystal (or vanilla frost) that can form on the outside of the bean. Usually white with the appearance of a spider web, this crystal forms from the vanillin's response to temperature changes. Here is an image that we found online of an unusually-high formation of vanillin crystals so you can see in detail what it appears like. (You will notice that this vanilla bean also has a split tip, which is not unusual) This is a very healthy vanilla bean with vanilla frost and a split end:
Another occurrence that can appear like mold on a vanilla bean is "vanilla butter". This is light in color and typically found at the top or bottom of the bean. You can know that it is butter by holding it close to a heat source for a moment, and it will melt just like regular butter. You can also rub it between your fingers and it will feel like butter.
Here is an image of vanilla butter at the end of several vanilla bean pods:
Cold temperatures can also create "speckles" on the beans. In this case the vanillin oil on the skin of the bean hardens (similar to oil hardening when left out overnight) and creates a tiny, off-white speck. These specks can be easily wiped off. If you look closely, the speckles are often a very light brown and crystal-like. Here is a picture of vanilla beans with speckles. You have to look closely to see them:
There may be other imperfections when you examine your beans closely. There can be damage to the skin of a bean where the beans were tied into bundles by the farmers. Bundling requires the use of twine that can erode the outer skin of the beans on the outside of the bundle, as pictured below. The quality of the bean is still great.
Sometimes you will notice an abnormality on the skin of a vanilla pod that looks like brand...and that is exactly what it is. Farmers will "tattoo" their vanilla beans to mitigate theft. Given the high price of vanilla, theft is an unfortunate reality that farmers in these small countries must deal with. Here is an image of a tattoo:
Finally, at-home extract makers may may notice white fatty-matter appearing on their beans shortly after submersing them in alcohol. It can have the initial appearance of mold, but when you look closely you will see that it is actually the fatty vanillin oils being extracted. They will break down over time. This is typically the sign of a vanillin-rich bean that is sure to be a sweet extract! If you ever question whether it is fat or mold, simply remove the bean from the bottle and rub the fatty matter between your fingers. Oil will be smooth like butter and will break down easily.
We personally inspect every single vanilla bean individually before it is shipped to you. We vacuum seal our vanilla beans to remove the oxygen and mitigate the occurrence of mold growth in transit. We do not rinse our beans in alcohol before shipping to you, because you would be paying for the added alcohol weight and because beans are the very best when their natural, oily surface is left undisturbed.
If you ever have questions about your beans or you are concerned about their appearance, give us a call or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.