Hey Chef, What Can I Do With Vanilla Beans?

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There's more to vanilla beans than cookies and ice cream. [Photograph: Vanilla Beans from Shutterstock]

Welcome to Hey Chef, a series where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love. Today, whole-pod vanilla.

High-quality whole vanilla beans are not always easy to find, but when affordable ones come our way there are few things more fun to play around with. Gently sliced open and freed of from their pods with the flat edge of a knife, vanilla beans add incredible depth and richness to the most simple of desserts, like easy chocolate puddings or whipped cream spooned over fruit. But to help us get outside our comfort zones, these four chefs dish up savory and smoky-sweet ways to get the most out of those precious little pods.

Infused Sugar

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[Photograph: Jason Varney]

James Beard award winning, cookbook-writing chef Jose Garces is the restaurateur behind Philly's Amada, Tinto, JG Domestic, and most recently Volver.

I like to open up the pods and put them into sugar to make vanilla sugar—it just adds another layer of depth to your white sugar. Split the beans first, using up to three for a quart of sugar, and give the jar a shake every so often. Before you know it, you have vanilla sugar for your coffee.

Add Depth to a Savory Soup

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[Photograph: Courtesy the Girl & the Goat]

Stephanie Izard is a Top Chef winner and owner of Girl & The Goat and Little Goat Diner in Chicago, where most dishes get kissed by the wood grill.

One of my favorite cold summer soups is a yellow tomato and vanilla bean soup. We char the tomatoes and add some fennel, anise liqueur, and vanilla. It's really tasty. It helps you see the savory side of vanilla. There's a nice acidity from the tomato, so instead of it being really sweet it makes your mouth have fun, wondering about it as you're taking bites, since it's weird but delicious.

Smoke It

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[Photograph: Courtesy of Joe Murphy]

Pastry Chef Joe Murphy heads up the kitchen at the iconic Jean-Georges in Manhattan, where his sweet dessert menu adorns one of our favorite fine-dining values in the city.

I once helped open a restaurant in Bora Bora and had the opportunity to take a boat ride to Tahiti to see vanilla plantations. There they had some of the largest vanilla beans I'd ever seen—16-19 inches long, incredibly thick, and unlike anything in the United States. I learned you want the bean to have a beautiful shine, and that if there's white on the outside, chances are it's been refrigerated. The inside should be incredibly moist, and the best way to hold them is at room temperature.

I take the beans and smoke them for ice cream; l use a whole pound, smoke them with chicory and apple wood, and then infuse the cream with that to give it an interesting flavor. I do six to eight hours of smoking with a Polyscience smoker gun. We'll put some smoke into a bag that the beans are in and let it sit, and then continuously fill up the bag.

Infuse Homemade Ricotta

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[Photograph: Maryse Chevriere]

Pastry chef Miroslav Uskokovic worked under Jean-Georges Chef Joe Murphy (and former chef Johnny Iuzzini) before creating his own menus at George Mendes' Aldea and, currently, at Union Square Hospitality Group's Gramercy Tavern.

I love to make ricotta and I love vanilla ricotta. I have it on the menu: a house-made vanilla ricotta we serve with a poppy seed cake and sherbet. We slowly bring the milk and cream up to a boil—with vanilla seeds and pods—and we let it steep for an hour. Then we add some acid to make it curdle and then strain it, but we leave the vanilla pods in the curd so they'll continue to steep overnight. We'll save the whey and give it to the savory cooks; they use it a lot, especially to cook polenta.

We also make our own house-made extract, so whatever pods we have left we mix them with vodka. We don't have a proportion, but probably for a liter of vodka we use around 40 pods, which kind of get preserved in alcohol, so we just keep on adding vodka and pods as we go, and let it sit for at least a week or two. Gramercy Tavern is a big restaurant and there are constantly pods accumulating, so were usually have four bottles going at a time. We use outstanding beans, so we don't waste any of them and try to use as much as we can. We make a vanilla salt, too, infusing Maldon salt and using it as a garnish or seasoning throughout the year.

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