The best part about the years I worked as a pastry chef was, hands down, the unlimited supply of vanilla beans I got to play with every day. There's nothing quite like the distinct, if extremely niche, pleasure of sinking a paring knife into a fat pod, then splitting it open to scrape out the rich paste stuffed inside. I'd save the seeds for low-moisture projects, like vanilla shortbread or peanut brittle, then dispatch the empty pods in "wet" applications—poached pears, vanilla ice cream, panna cotta, and so on.
Later on, I'd give the empty pods a light rinse, wipe them clean, and then dry them in a low oven so I could store and reuse them down the road. This rarely, if ever, included making vanilla sugar, a popular trick among home cooks that results in an undeniably appealing aroma. Unfortunately, that scent is like the top note of perfume: fleeting at best, and too volatile to survive the rigors of boiling or baking. For that reason, I'm more inclined to store my vanilla pods in a package of something that's ready to eat—say, a bag of homemade granola or a tin of sugar cookies.
Given that vanilla beans cost more than ever these days (and, as Eater reports, are only getting pricier), it's all the more important to make the most of every pod. Leftover vanilla can be a great source of flavor and aroma for your favorite recipes, but only with methods aimed at extracting the pods' water-soluble compounds. So go ahead—stick that vanilla bean into a bag of sugar, or store it alongside some tasty treat, but be sure you also put it to work later on with one of these applications.
Long-Term Cold Infusions
Slip a leftover vanilla bean into a bottle of maple syrup and let it hang out in the fridge for a month, or add one to a quart of milk or cream and let it steep for a week before using it in your favorite recipes. Whether you tuck the bean into a jug of cold-brew coffee or a jar of lemon syrup, these slow, cold infusions will impart a mellow vanilla character to whatever you've got stashed in the fridge.
Short-Term, High-Heat Infusions
The next time you whip up a batch of caramel sauce, cajeta, or sweetened condensed milk, toss that leftover vanilla bean right on in. Pull it out when you're done, or leave it in to double down with a cold infusion when those sweets are stored in the fridge.
Brown Butter and Toasted Cream
If you've never enhanced brown butter with a vanilla bean, you're really missing out. This relatively high-heat method pulls out the pod's deeper, oakier notes, rather than the light, perfume-y vanilla aroma we're used to. It'll add delicious complexity to classics like yeast-raised waffles, carrot cake, and chocolate chip cookies.
Aside from obvious applications, like poached pears, leftover vanilla pods can add a creamy, aromatic presence in dishes like roasted strawberries, homemade applesauce, cherry ice cream, and lemon syrup (or perhaps an orange variation, if you wanna groove on a Creamsicle vibe). Just toss your pod into the pot with whatever fruit you're cooking, and remove it when you've reached your desired level of vanilla flavor.
After drying out, leftover vanilla beans are brittle enough to be ground up alongside coffee beans if you dig the pairing. Alternatively, they can be reduced to a powder in a spice mill and added with other dry ingredients to any recipe that could benefit from a vanilla boost—take your pick!
Whether you're making panna cotta or vanilla ice cream, any time a recipe calls for a freshly split vanilla bean, you can sub in a leftover pod so long as you steep it for a greater length of time—I'll often take that to about 24 hours. Just be sure to cover your liquids during that long interval, as a surprising amount of evaporation can happen along the way.
All of the wet methods above will also work to rehydrate old, withered vanilla beans that have never been used, but are too dry to split and scrape (the sort you’ll often see sold in glass vials at the supermarket, or lurking in a bag you forgot about in the pantry). After soaking in a hot or cold infusion, those brittle beans will soften right up, at which point they can be split and scraped so the seeds won’t go to waste. Dried-out unused pods that haven't been split can be ground up with coffee beans or for vanilla powder, just like split ones.
Once you start thinking beyond that bag o' sugar, you'll find no end of use for those leftover vanilla pods, and a growing appreciation for the nuanced flavor they bring to the table.