Vanilla beans supply flavor that’s superior to vanilla extract, but they also require a little more maintenance.
Besides being expensive, vanilla beans dry out in storage unless well wrapped, and they’re more work, since you have to halve the bean lengthwise and scrape out the sticky seeds. So when we came across a technique on the website Chow that promised to solve both of these problems, we had to try it. The method calls for snipping off the end of a vanilla bean and standing it up in 1/2 inch of vodka (which is flavorless) or rum (which has flavors that complement that of vanilla) in a jar that is then sealed and stored in the fridge. After a month or so, the alcohol will have traveled up the inside of the bean, turning the seeds into a paste that is easily removed by pinching the bean between two fingers and squeezing. The alcohol also helps prevent the beans from drying out, which can make the seeds especially hard to remove. We found that the technique worked very well, especially after we added an improvement of our own: We cut the beans in the middle, rather than at the end, which left them half as long and able to absorb the vodka twice as fast: in only two weeks. (You can reuse the alcohol for another batch of beans; just top it off to a depth of ½ inch.)