Using vanilla beans in place of an extract in a recipe can really enhance the flavor of a dish, but you can only make so many creme brulees, or batches of homemade ice cream! The question remains, do vanilla beans go bad, and how long do you have to use them?
Do vanilla beans go bad?
Like many baking ingredients, vanilla beans do eventually lose their potency. With proper storage, vanilla beans can last for up to two years. After two years, while the beans will still be safe, they will likely have dried out too much to have any flavor, and should be discarded.
To test if the vanilla beans still have sufficient flavor, cut a small piece off of the end of a bean, and crush this bit between your fingers. You should be able to smell a very strong vanilla scent. If this scent is weak, you will likely need to double the amount of vanilla you are using to achieve the same effect. If the beans are too brittle to crush, they have likely lost all flavor.
Vanilla beans should be stored in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place, like your pantry or cellar. Refrigeration is not recommended, as your fridge can dry the bean out very quickly, and even promote mold growth. Wrapping the beans in either plastic wrap or wax paper, before storing them is strongly recommended to preserve the quality of the beans. Vanilla beans also benefit from a bit of air circulation every few weeks, which can be achieved simply by opening the container for a few minutes, though this isn’t entirely necessary.
Image used under Creative Commons from Augustine Fou
Signs of Spoilage
With the exception of mold growth, vanilla beans tend not to spoil so much as dry out. Dry vanilla beans, though potentially still safe to eat, will have drastically less flavor, and will eventually lose their flavor completely. The drier and older the bean, the more flavor compounds have degraded. You can rehydrate vanilla beans by soaking them in warm water for a few hours immediately before using, though you should not store the soaked beans.
Often times, as vanilla beans age and dry out, a white layer will form on the outside of the bean. While it may look like mold, this white layer is actually crystallized vanillin (the flavor compound in vanilla) that has reached the surface of the bean as it dries out, and is still edible. This vanillin “frost” should look shiny, and hard.
Vanilla beans can mold, however, especially when kept in humid conditions. Mold will appear as fuzzy or spongy spots on the beans. This mold is not harmful if only on the surface. To remove mold, the beans can be wiped with a cloth, moistened in vodka. This will kill the mold, and clean the surface of the bean. The bean may be used as normal. If the mold has permeated the bean’s surface and is growing inside of the pod, the vanilla should be discarded.
Storing Vanilla Beans Long Term
Like refrigerating, freezing vanilla beans is not recommended. This rapidly dries the bean out, and significantly reduces the quality. One way to store vanilla beans pretty much indefinitely, is to keep them submerged in vodka, in an airtight container. The vodka will not only kill any mold that might have been present, but will keep the beans moist and preserve the flavor compounds. As a bonus, once the beans have been used, you’ve now got a jar of homemade vanilla extract!
Another long term storage method is to store beans, covered in sugar. The beans will have approximately the same shelf life as when wrapped in plastic wrap and sealed, though will last a little longer, as the sugar will help to regulate the moisture. After a week or so, the sugar will begin to take on a lovely vanilla flavor and makes a lovely addition to recipes, or even tea and coffee. After beans have had their seeds removed, they can still flavor sugar quite nicely and can continue to be stored in the sugar indefinitely.