Q: I recently purchased some very nice vanilla beans at a new market in my area. What is the best way to store them? The last ones I purchased were fairly stiff before I got a chance to use them.
—Andrew Maselli, Chicago
A: I posed your question to Craig Nielsen, chief executive officer of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan. He says a really stiff bean is one that is starting to dry out and has lost some of its essential oils — those oils that convey flavor and fragrance.
"Gourmet vanilla beans should be pliable enough so you can tie it into a knot,'' he says.
Nielsen recommends storing vanilla beans in a tightly sealed container, either a glass jar or double bagged in plastic bags. Keep the bean away from light or heat — a dark cabinet at room temperature is best. Do not refrigerate the beans, he says, because they can get moldy.
How can you tell if the vanilla bean is too dry when buying? Use your eyes and ears.
"You are looking for a nice brown color,'' Nielsen says, adding that the bean should look moist. If the bean is jarred, shake the container gently. You will be able to tell if the bean is brittle by the sound it makes hitting the glass, he notes.
Vanilla flavor can be found in both the bean and the seeds inside, according to the Nielsen-Massey website, http://www.nielsenmassey.com/
"Simply split the bean and scrape the seeds into your dish, which will also give your dishes the irresistible visual appeal of real vanilla seeds," the website states. "You can simmer the whole bean in milk, cream or another liquid and pour the mixture into your dish. As long as the bean still possesses its characteristic aroma and is moist and pliable, you can rinse, dry and use it again."
Nielsen says the average vanilla bean can be used two or three times. After that, he recommends cutting up the bean and sticking it in some sugar. Let it sit for a couple of weeks to flavor and perfume the sugar.
One vanilla bean is equal to 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste or vanilla powder, according to the company website.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.