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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.

One thought on “How to Cure Vanilla Beans, Part 2

  1. […] the next part, we get into how to com­plete the sweat­ing process and how to dry and age the […]

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