Vanilla extract is used in most baking recipes to add a splash of vanilla flavor, which helps to intensify other flavors in your recipe. Vanilla beans, on the other hand, tend to get saved for “special occasion” baking. Since they can be fairly expensive, many people only reach for whole vanilla beans when they are making a special recipe that needs that extra vanilla flavor. Unfortunately, sometimes you will find that your vanilla beans are dried and tough if you have waited a long time to use them up.
Vanilla beans keep extremely well and can last for years when stored in a glass container that will lock their natural moisture in, allowing them to stay plump and flexible. Many companies prefer to have vanilla beans packaged in plastic bags or other containers that are inexpensive to keep prices down. Unfortunately, this non-airtight packaging is not ideal for the beans and when you find that your vanilla beans are dried out, it is often because the beans were stored for a long time in less-than-perfect packaging.
Dried beans are not easy to use, since it can be difficult to cut them in half and scrape out the seeds. Fortunately, you can rehydrate a dried out vanilla bean to give it new life and use more easily. Place the dried bean in a shallow bowl and add some hot – but not boiling – water to immerse the bean. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand for about 10 minutes, until bean is soft. The vanilla bean should then be used right away. This method isn’t going to plump up your beans if you want to put them back into storage, but it does make them useable – and using them will help free up space in your pantry for a fresh batch of vanilla beans.