In the last 10 years, the price of vanilla has steadily risen mainly because of higher demand and for alleged scarcity in some of the main production areas around the world. In the past, pastry chefs could afford to use only the pulp and occasionally the pods discarding them without going a step further.
Today, to save money, we buy bulk and use 100% of the vanilla bean.
Here is how we do it :
Start by cleaning your vanilla pods with a cotton pad and grain alcohol or cheap vodka. Place the pods in a tall, thin glass jar and pour enough alcohol (grain alcohol, vodka or dark rhum) to just cover the top of the vanilla beans. Close the jar and keep it refrigerated. Within a few weeks, the pods will plump and at the same time infuse the alcohol with a great vanilla flavor. In a month, the alcohol becomes light vanilla extract. When you use a soaked vanilla bean, there's no need to split it in half, like you would with a dry pod, to extract the pulp. When plumped in alcohol, the seeds can be extracted by first snipping off one end and then by squeezing the pod like a toothpaste tube. The used pods should be cut in half or in small pieces and placed back in the jar to keep infusing your alcohol.
When you have a good number of used pods, let's say the equivalent of at least 10 beans, you can start the second phase:
In a food processor, place the used pods, some of the infused alcohol and 2 tablespoons of glucose syrup or trimoline. Process until everything is reduced to a thick paste. If necessary, add more alcohol. The paste should be wet and as fine as possible. Place the paste in a fine sieve or cheesecloth over a bowl and press as much liquid out as possible. This liquid obtained is an intense vanilla extract you can get. Save it in a separate jar, air tight and refrigerate.
The process isn't over yet!
Now it's time to dehydrate the vanilla paste you have just made. If you own a convection/fan-forced oven, spread the paste onto a tray, place a cooling rack on top of the vanilla paste (it will prevent it from flying all over the oven) and set the oven at 50c/120F for a couple of hours or until your paste is very dry. If you don't have a convection oven it will take longer and you will have to open the oven door often to let the humidity escape.
Place the dried vanilla back in the food processor, with about 2 tablespoons of sugar for each pod you are using. Process until most of the vanilla is reduced to a fine powder. If the blades are sharp enough you will obtain a fine vanilla sugar, otherwise you might have to sift out chunks of vanilla.
This final step yields a lovely vanilla sugar that can be used for cake batters, cookies, syrups and creams. It cannot be used for meringues because the oil content prevents egg whites from whipping properly.
Voilà, all the money you have spent for purchasing real vanilla now goes in your desserts and not in the trash!
All the best and happy baking.