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How to Cure Vanilla Beans, Part 1

I occa­sion­al­ly get ques­tions from peo­ple who are grow­ing their own vanil­la and want to know the best way to cure the beans. Getting a good cure out of your beans can be a lit­tle chal­leng­ing, but hope­ful­ly, this guide will make it eas­i­er.

It is essen­tial that vanil­la be prop­er­ly cured in order to obtain the desired aro­ma and fla­vor from your vanil­la beans. The process of cur­ing vanil­la beans is a mat­ter of sup­port­ing both the vanillin devel­op­ment and the slow dry­ing of the bean in order to pre­serve it.

The instruc­tions here are for vanil­la plan­i­fo­lia beans. There are 3 types of vanil­la beans: Bourbon (vanil­la plan­i­fo­lia), Tahitian (vanil­la tahiten­sis), and Pompona (vanil­la pom­pona). Each type has a some­what dif­fer­ent cur­ing process, although the vanillin chem­istry is gen­er­al­ly the same. Planifolia is the one most wide­ly used for vanil­la pro­duc­tion.

Equipment You’ll Need

In order to cure your vanil­la, there are a few essen­tial pieces of equip­ment you’ll need.

  • Freezer
  • Food Dehydrator
  • 48 qt. Cooler
  • 2 Gallon Jugs
  • Kitchen Towel
  • Thermometer
  • 1 Gallon Freezer Bags

The food dehy­dra­tor is the most sub­stan­tial item here, the wide­ly-avail­able Excalibur is a good choice. It’s best to have one that uses a fan to cir­cu­late the air and has a tem­per­a­ture con­trol.

The cool­er should be one that is well-insu­lat­ed with thick walls and lid. Thin, inex­pen­sive plas­tic or sty­ro­foam cool­ers can be used, but it’s hard­er to main­tain the inter­nal tem­per­a­ture with those. The cool­er needs to be big enough for the two gal­lon jugs, leav­ing room for your cur­ing vanil­la.

The freez­er is to store your ripe beans until they can be cured. The ther­mome­ter is need­ed to to mon­i­tor the tem­per­a­ture, and freez­er bags are what you use to hold the cur­ing beans.

Start With Ripe Vanilla Beans

One of the most impor­tant ingre­di­ents for a suc­cess­ful cure is to start with ripe beans. A ripe vanil­la bean will be yel­low­ing at the tip and show­ing the ear­ly signs of split­ting, or it’s begin­ning to split.

The ripen­ing is impor­tant because the vanil­la fla­vor is derived from the sug­ars that devel­op as the bean ripens. You want max­i­mum sug­ar devel­op­ment for two rea­sons: strongest fla­vor and the sug­ars act to pre­serve the bean once it’s cured.

Beginning the Curing Process

Ripe vanil­la beans, once picked, should be cured right away. You should begin cur­ing the beans with­in 24 hours of pick­ing.

The first step is called “killing” and what it does is stop the ripen­ing process and open the cell walls to release the enzymes and vanillin pre­cur­sors. There are sev­er­al ways to kill your beans, but for most hob­by­ist grow­ers, freez­ing is very prac­ti­cal.

Freezing the beans works well if you’ve got a small num­ber of vanil­la plants. The beans on your plants are not going to ripen at the same time, you’ll be har­vest­ing a few each cou­ple of days. As each bean ripens, put them into a freez­er bag in your freez­er until all your beans have ripened.

By doing it this way, your many small har­vests will be com­bined into a sin­gle batch the be cured. This will make the cur­ing process a lot eas­i­er to man­age, and get you clos­er to the opti­mal cur­ing batch size, which is about 1 pound of green beans.

Setting Up The Sweat

Then next stage of the cur­ing process is called the “sweat.” This is because the beans seem to sweat out mois­ture, which is nec­es­sary to get the chem­i­cal reac­tions going.

In very sim­ple terms, the process we are fos­ter­ing here is the enzy­mat­ic break­down of the glu­co-vanillins that are present in the ripe pod into two com­po­nents: vanillin and glu­cose. Vanillin is the fla­vor and aro­ma of vanil­la and glu­cose is an essen­tial nat­ur­al preser­v­a­tive to pre­vent the bean rot­ting or mold­ing.

When you’ve har­vest­ed all your ripened beans and they have been in the freez­er for at least 24 hours, you’re ready to begin sweat­ing.

Prepare your sweat box (the cool­er) by fill­ing the jugs with hot tap water. This will typ­i­cal­ly be about 120℉. Place them in the cool­er with space between them for the vanil­la. Put a rolled-up tow­el (one you don’t mind get­ting wet and pos­si­bly stained) into the gap. The sweat­ing vanil­la will go on top of the tow­el, which pre­vents it from sit­ting in any mois­ture that might col­lect on the bot­tom of the cool­er.

Next we thaw the beans and get rid of any frost. You can do this by putting the frozen beans into your food dehy­dra­tor for a short time. Set the heat to low, 120℉ or so, then spread the beans onto shelves in the dehy­dra­tor to thaw for a very short time. 10 min­utes should be good, just enough for the sur­face frost to melt off and the beans to become pli­able.

Place the thawed beans into a freez­er bag. If you do have more than about one pound of beans, split it into two bags. Label the bag with the date, and place in the sweat box, on the tow­el between the hot water jugs. Keep the lid closed.

In the next part, we get into how to com­plete the sweat­ing process and how to dry and age the beans…

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How to Cure Vanilla Beans, Part 2

In Part 1, I explained how to har­vest and pre­pare the beans for cur­ing, and what equip­ment you’ll need. Next, we’ll go through how to sweat, dry and age the beans.

The Sweat Cycle

Following from the pre­vi­ous tuto­r­i­al, your beans are now in the warm sweat box.

The beans are going to stay in the sweat box for 48 hours at first. Use the ther­mome­ter to watch the tem­per­a­ture in the zone where the beans are. The opti­mal tem­per­a­ture is 115℉, so the clos­er it stays to that temp, the bet­ter. Lower tem­per­a­tures are OK, but once it gets into the low 90s, refill the water jugs.

This may be the most chal­leng­ing part of the process to get right, but remem­ber that hav­ing it drop into the 80s is not a big deal, it just will slow things down. Do your best to keep the temps up, but don’t wor­ry about it.

The beans will become sticky and wet in the bag. This is what we’re look­ing for, it’s the sweat.

Once the 48 hours (or so–no need to be exact) is up, we cycle the beans through the dehy­dra­tor. Take your beans out of the bag and spread onto your dehy­dra­tor shelves. Turn the dehy­dra­tor to 115℉ and leave the beans in there for an hour or so. The stick­i­ness should dry some…probably not all the way dry for the first few cycles.

Refill the hot water jugs with hot water.

After the hour of dehy­drat­ing, put the beans back into their bag (don’t be tempt­ed to replace, wash or dry the bag, just re-use the wet bag), and then into the sweat box.

While the first sweat cycle is 48 hours, all sub­se­quent sweat cycles will be 24 hours until the sweat­ing is done. Between each cycle is 1 hour in the dehy­dra­tor. The effect of this is a very slow dry­ing while the beans are sweat­ing. This is part­ly to pre­vent rot­ting with all that warmth and mois­ture.

Once you’re into the sweat by a week, it becomes less crit­i­cal that you do the dry cycle every 24 hours. Skipping a day is not a big deal. The tem­per­a­ture needs to stay near the opti­mal 115℉ as much as pos­si­ble the whole time, how­ev­er.

In our oper­a­tion here, we use a elec­tri­cal­ly heat­ed sweat box, much like an incu­ba­tor, so the tem­per­a­ture con­trol is auto­mat­ic.

Completing the Sweat

The sweat is going to take 18 days from when you first put the beans into the sweat box. In that time, the col­or will turn from green to a light green­ish brown and final­ly to brown. The aro­ma of the beans will go from sharp and flo­ral at first, to a kind of (what I call) “leath­ery” smell. It won’t so much smell of vanil­la until the end of the sweat­ing peri­od.

The beans may be a bit oily (the “oil” is real­ly glu­cose) to the touch at the end of the 18 days, and they will have begun to shrink and get lon­gi­tu­di­nal wrin­kles. These wrin­kles are some­thing you are going to focus on when assess­ing the progress of a bean as it cures.

Drying the Beans

The next stage is slow­ly dry­ing the beans until they reach the desired mois­ture lev­el. This can take any­where from 3 weeks (for small­er beans) to 2 months to com­plete.

How you do the dry­ing depends on what sit­u­a­tion you can arrange for the beans. Here in Hawaii, we dry them out­doors on a dry­ing rack that is ele­vat­ed (on a roof) and pro­tect­ed from the rain and sun. Depending on your cir­cum­stances, there are sev­er­al ways you can do the dry­ing.

We want to dry the beans very slow­ly to get the best qual­i­ty. This allows any remain­ing vanillin reac­tions to com­plete with­in the bean. It also helps ensure that we don’t overdry the beans. The sweat has con­di­tioned the beans so they are pre­served and sta­ble as far as spoilage is con­cerned, so we are not in a hur­ry to dry them.

The impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions for dry­ing vanil­la are:

  • Clean, dry envi­ron­ment
  • Undisturbed for sev­er­al weeks
  • Plenty of air cir­cu­la­tion

Here are some ideas for setups for dry­ing the beans:

  • Indoors on dehy­dra­tor shelves placed on a laun­dry rack or wire shelf
  • Outdoors on a sim­i­lar set­up, but away from the ground or over con­crete, such as on a patio. Keep them high off the ground and don’t let the dry­ing beans get wet.
  • Solar dehy­dra­tor not in the sun, sim­i­lar loca­tion: high off the ground or over con­crete, this is to avoid dew, which comes up from the ground.
  • Dehydrator with fan on and heat off. Drying will hap­pen much more quick­ly, watch them close­ly.

Checking the Beans’ Moisture Level

The dry­ing process will need to con­tin­ue as long as it takes for each bean to reach the desired mois­ture lev­el. Each bean will dry at its own rate, so you will need to check on them fre­quent­ly. Beans that are done are put into a sealed plas­tic bag.

To check the mois­ture lev­el, look close­ly at the wrin­kled sur­face of the bean. While a bean is dry­ing, there will be wrin­kles with smooth bean sur­face between them. As they dry, the width of the smooth sur­face between the wrin­kles gets small­er. A ful­ly-dried bean will have lit­tle or no smooth areas between the wrin­kles: it will be all wrin­kles.

You can feel the dry­ness as well. This takes some expe­ri­ence to get right, but you can squeeze the bean between your fin­gers to get a sense of what the mois­ture lev­el inside is. What I look for is some­thing like what you’d expect a soft dried fruit (such as an apri­cot) to feel like. As it dries, it will stop feel­ing slip­pery inside the bean and instead it will be a lit­tle firm yet still sup­ple.

The col­or is anoth­er way to gauge the dry­ness: it will get dark­er, usu­al­ly going from dark brown to almost black. This is not a reli­able test, how­ev­er, as it is nor­mal for the bean col­or to vary depend­ing on a lot of fac­tors. Your beans may start out light brown and get dark­er, but only to a dark brown.

If the beans stay light brown, that is a qual­i­ty issue. They will feel slight­ly hol­low inside and dry on the sur­face. A bean like this is till usable, but it won’t have the fla­vor inten­si­ty of a good qual­i­ty bean. The usu­al rea­son for this con­di­tion is an under-ripened bean.

Conditioning the Beans

Once the beans are dried, the final stage is to age or “con­di­tion” them for a while. As explained above, we place the dried beans in a sealed plas­tic bag as they dry. Label the bag with the date of the least bean to go in there.

The beans will con­di­tion for at least 3 months after dry­ing. This is where the fla­vor and aro­ma set­tles in and sta­bi­lizes. Since the beans are togeth­er in a sealed con­tain­er, the mois­ture and aro­ma equal­izes between the beans, and you end up with a more con­sis­tent cure.

After the 3‑month con­di­tion­ing, the beans are done and can be han­dled like any vanil­la bean. They should be kept in a sealed con­tain­er and will keep indef­i­nite­ly that way. This is also when you will select out your beans for mak­ing extract.

Extract beans tend to be dry­er, so select out all the beans that are firm, and not as sup­ple. Also any small beans or beans that are split more than 1/2 inch. These beans are used to make your extract.

So that’s it, if you’re grow­ing vanil­la, you can use this tuto­r­i­al to cure them for max­i­mum fla­vor devel­op­ment while pre­vent­ing mold.

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Sorting the Cured Beans

The beans are ini­tial­ly sort­ed into 3 groups.

As the beans com­plete their cur­ing, they need to be inspect­ed, sort­ed, and pack­aged for long-term stor­age. We’ve been doing this for 2 months now, and some of the ear­li­est beans to go into stor­age are ready for sale or to be made into one of our vanil­la prod­ucts, such as extract or syrup.

The beans are ini­tial­ly sort­ed into three groups: Grade A, Grade B and Extract. This is accord­ing to mois­ture con­tent and appear­ance. They are then vac­u­um-packed and will be aged in that state for 1–6 months.

This year’s har­vest is our first big har­vest and we’re not quite sure how it’s all going to get mar­ket­ed. Of course there will be online retail sales, and per­haps a cou­ple of shops on the island will car­ry our vanil­la prod­ucts.

We are engag­ing our con­tacts in the culi­nary world, too. We’re inter­est­ed to know how the qual­i­ty of our beans mea­sures up with peo­ple who know vanilla…and of course, we will be sell­ing whole­sale to pro­fes­sion­als who are look­ing for arti­sanal Hawaiian vanil­la.

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2018 Harvest Season Begins!

a vanil­la “broom”

This is the first year we are get­ting a full har­vest out of the vanillery. It’s been a good year, growth-wise, maybe even too good. The vines are grow­ing so thick­ly now, it’s hard to see the beans for har­vest­ing.

This har­vest sea­son actu­al­ly began on January 3, we missed a few ear­ly ones, but on that day I har­vest­ed 3 dozen beans. It seems to be com­ing in much ear­li­er this year. Last year’s first har­vest was in February some­time. I can only guess that the onset of the har­vest sea­son moves around a lot.

a giant vanil­la bean

Today’s har­vest was par­tic­u­lar­ly boun­ti­ful in terms of bean size. In the pho­to, I’m hold­ing one of the biggest beans I’ve ever seen, 240mm in length and weigh­ing in at 33 grams. The aver­age length for a grade I bean is about 180mm and 17g, so that’s sub­stan­tial­ly larg­er than most of the large beans.

You might expect a bean like that from a Tahitian vanil­la (Vanilla tahiten­sis) plant, but we are grow­ing the more com­mon Vanilla plan­i­fo­lia, which pro­duces a small­er bean gen­er­al­ly.

Vanilla bean green grades are by length: grade I is 150mm and over, grade II is 150 — 100mm, and grade III is less than 100mm. This is impor­tant because the pro­cess­ing is slight­ly dif­fer­ent for each grade. The larg­er the bean, the more time it gets in the kill bath and in the sweat­ing stage.

For the beans in this kill bath, it is the begin­ning of a long process: 10 days of sweat­ing fol­lowed by 3–6 weeks of air-dry­ing. After that, the by now shriv­eled and dark brown or black beans are con­di­tioned for 9 months before they are grad­ed and made into extract.

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Grading the 2016 Harvest

full-harvest-aug-2016-3Took the beans out of their box today: it’s time to grade the har­vest. The last beans came off the open-air dry­ing racks two months ago, and they’ve been con­di­tion­ing in their box since then. The beans are grad­ed at this point, divid­ed into the two grades by size, mois­ture con­tent, and appear­ance.

The grade A beans are bun­dled and placed in the con­di­tion­ing box for anoth­er 7 months, so there is a total of 9 months of con­di­tion­ing after the dry­ing is com­plete. The cured beans are sold to the culi­nary trade for direct use in recipes. They are brown in col­or and filled with fra­grant, oily “caviar,” the seeds and pulp of the vanil­la pod after cur­ing. This is where the fra­grance of the vanil­la bean is con­cen­trat­ed.

The grade B beans in part will be sold as grade B beans, but most will be used to make extract. We make two dif­fer­ent types of extract: one, a 100% local extract using Koloa Rum, made on the west side of Kauai. The sec­ond is an organ­ic extract using Prairie organ­ic vod­ka. The beans sit in the alco­hol for a min­i­mum of 6 months before we begin to sell them.

It’s a good har­vest this year, I’m very proud of it! The beans are in beau­ti­ful con­di­tion.