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Vanilla bean (Recipe: chocolate sorbet with vanilla-orange sauce)

Updated July 2010.


For the longest time, I thought that life was either-or.

Coffee or tea.

Ketchup or mustard.

Briefs or boxers.

The ultimate either-or, chocolate or vanilla, turns out to be no choice at all. Almost every dish that calls for chocolate asks for a bit of vanilla to provide a necessary counterpoint, to enhance and balance the flavor. Chocolate needs vanilla, but vanilla can stand on its own.

To solve the mystery of this one-sided relationship, I went searching for the source: the vanilla bean. (Surprise — I found in my pantry not one, but two, vanilla beans, one of which my Cousin Martin brought from his travels in Tahiti.) And then I called my friend Cindy Salvato, an executive pastry chef, who explained that originally cacao beans were ground together with vanilla beans, so it's likely that our collective taste buds have come to prefer the slightly vanilla-ized taste of chocolate.

Native to Central America, and today cultivated in Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti and Indonesia, vanilla is the fruit of a perennial orchid. When harvested, the pods have no aroma or flavor; those qualities come forth during the drying-and-sweating process as the pods ferment. Five pounds of fresh pods will yield one pound of cured vanilla beans.

Vanilla bean

Vanilla beans vary in quality and in flavor, according to country of origin. The price ranges from 50 cents to one dollar or more per bean. Store your vanilla beans in an airtight container, away from light. They'll keep for two years or more, and can be used over and over.

Make your own vanilla sugar by simply placing the vanilla bean in a container of sugar (how hard is that?). Make your own vanilla extract by adding the pod to vodka, and letting it steep for several months (not much harder than making the sugar).

Though most often associated with sweet, vanilla actually pairs well with savory dishes, especially fish and shellfish, black beans and root vegetables. And yes, it's pretty good with chocolate, too.

Where do you put your vanilla beans?

Chocolate sorbet with vanilla-orange sauce

This dessert has become a favorite in our household. Make this several hours before dinner, or even the day before. Use orange gelato or vanilla frozen yogurt, if you prefer. Serves 6.


6 oranges, any type
1 vanilla bean
2 pints of your favorite chocolate sorbet or gelato (we like Gaga's Sherbetter)
A few mint leaves, for garnish


Slice off one end of the orange to make an opening large enough for a spoon. Holding each orange over a bowl, hollow out the insides, leaving an empty orange "cup"; remove each segment from the membrane, and add the segments to the bowl with the juice. Add the vanilla bean to the bowl, making sure it is submerged in the orange juice, and set aside until ready to serve (can be done several hours in advance, or even the day before).

If necessary, cut a tiny slice off the bottom of each orange to allow it to sit on a plate without rolling around. Fill each orange with chocolate sorbet or gelato. Place the filled oranges on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and place in the freezer until ready to serve.

Bring oranges out of the freezer 10 minutes before serving. Top each with the vanilla-flavored orange segments, and pour some of the orange juice over the top. Add a mint leaf for garnish.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Poached pears in vanilla
Sea bass with vanilla cream
Espresso sorbet
Ice cream chocolate chip cookies
Finnish pulla bread

Other recipes that use vanilla beans:
Petite vanilla bean scones, from The Pioneer Woman Cooks
Vanilla mashed sweet potatoes, from 101 Cookbooks
Vanilla bean cheesecake bars, from Baking Bites
Orange and vanilla bean oatmeal, from The Pink Apron
Butternut squash and vanilla soup, from Chocolate & Zucchini

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I often make my own vanilla sugar, and the smell is just fabulous. I think vanilla is a bit like chillies, once you start you can't stop!

I LOVE this idea! I'd be partial to ice milk, however, even though I've never seen it in the States.

Wonderful recipe! I like to make my own vanilla sugar. In fact, I'm glad I read this post because I have a lovely bean in my pantry that I intended using for that purpose. So, I will do that today. Thanks!

I am so accustomed to vanilla extract that I have forgotten about the gnarly, bent bean in a jar of sugar at the back of my cupboard. The sugar is now as hard as an iceberg, but BOY does it smell great! I think the only cure for it is a simple syrup. I definitely don't want to waste it.

I adore vanilla bean. Always have one to perfume my sugar. And the recipe for the sorbet sounds so good!

They ground the vanilla beans with the cocoa...umm well as soon as I see that it sounds so obvious but not something I would have thought of myself. And vanilla with black beans...ummm...interesting.

Kelly-Jane, you're so right -- the aroma of vanilla is addictive.

Alanna, haven't seen ice milk in a while (I used to love it when I was a kid, though). Frozen yogurt would work well in this.

Sher, vanilla sugar is like magic -- so simple, and so delicious.

Susan, this trick works with brown sugar, and maybe with white sugar, too: put a slice of bread in with the sugar and leave it overnight. The bread releases moisture and loosens the hardened sugar.

Anh, this sorbet-filled orange (or lemon or lime) makes such a lovely presentation. The vanilla-orange sauce is a real bonus.

Tanna, I've heard of black beans with vanilla, but couldn't find a great blog recipe to link to. I'll keep looking.

vanilla is an amazing ingredient... i think i read some where that that it had more taste notes than any other food. or something like that. but vanilla beans are a special food, used for making special desserts [aka, not a birthday cake]... but something lovely like what you show here... mmm.. orange and vanilla are great together!

The vanilla bean looks gorgeous. I have never seen or used one in my life. Only have ever used the supermarket-variety vanilla extract. I think I need to save some money and buy me some real vanilla beans :)

I am totally a vanilla bean fan. It imparts the most sensuous aroma and unworldly taste to food. I used to be all about chocolate. But after I had my first encounter with the vanilla bean...it is indeed a difficult decision to favor one over the other.

Connie, orange and vanilla always reminds me of the Creamsicles we'd get from the ice cream truck when we were kids! Vanilla beans are so rich in flavor. I'm just starting to appreciate that.

Nupur, the nice thing about vanilla beans is that you can use them over and over. If you use the seeds inside for one thing, you can keep the pod, which still has lots of flavor, and steep it in one liquid, then dry it out and steep it in something else like vanilla sugar.

Veron, sensuous is the perfect word for it. I, too, was all about chocolate, until recently, when I'm learning more about the subtle flavor of vanilla.

Aaargh, don't even get me started on vanilla! For my panna cotta, I strictly use only the real stuff! For all other baking needs (since I'm not much of a baker), I dump in essence, heh heh.

I feel happiest baking when I know I have a vanilla pod embedded in a jar of sugar. It means I can make custard, cakes, pastry, all manner of things! I really want to try some MExican vanilla though!


I have never cooked with/bought/even touched a vanilla bean. I've been meaning to know it better for a long time and your post just made me more curious!

I use a great vanilla extract my friend Valentina gave me and it's so different from the artificial vanilla essences I used to buy here.

It's time for the pod!:)

I baked with real vanilla beans for the first time last year, and the taste was marvelous. Though my jaw dropped at the price, it was worth it! I also like Trader Joe's Tahitian vanilla extract.

Thanks for the novel suggestions as well, especially the vanilla sugar. I think I can swing that one. ;)

I use vanilla bean in sweet puddings such as chocolate or grapenut, in baked goods such as sweet breads, and in breakfast cereals such as homemade granola. As for savory dishes, I've only used it in a root vegetable dish that included parsnips, rutabagas, and sweet potatoes.

Hello Lydia,
I love the aroma of fresh vanilla beans! Tourists buy loads of them here but I find them quite pricey:)
But I agree with you, they're so versatile they even fit in savoury sauces:)

Shilpa, I love the look of the vanilla seeds in panna cotta.

Patricia, the lovely thing about the bean is that you'll be able to use it over and over again. We're so lucky that, even though vanilla doesn't grow anywhere around here, we have the most wonderful vanilla extract, made by the Baldwin Company in Massachusetts -- close enough to Rhode Island that we can drive to the store in three hours. And it's worth it!

Susan, the price is high, but the beans can last quite a while if properly stored. I haven't tried vanilla with sweet potatoes, but I think it sounds delightful (after all, if you like sweet potatoes with marshmallows....)!

Valentina, I just think of the price as an investment. After I've taken the seeds out, I stick the pod into some sugar and I feel like an absolute genius.

I wish I'd smell that good after being dried and later sweating... I used to think of vanilla as the negation of chocolate, thank goodness I learned better. I remember there was an old Saveur issue covering Mexican vanilla with a recipe for blackbeans and vanilla. They also had a woman crowned something equivalent to Ms. Vanilla wearing a towering headdress of woven vanilla pods!

Make my own vanilla extract with vodka??!! I didn't know I could! What a great idea, as is the addition of vanilla to savory dishes.

What would we do without vanilla?! It's such a great ingredient to use in desserts but I've never tried it with savoury dishes. My friends make vanilla sugar like you mentioned, so easy.

Callipygia, thank you so much, I'm definitely going to search out that issue of Saveur; I'd forgotten all about it.

TW, it's easy peasy! And if you make any extra, I will be happy to take it off your hands!

Steven, don't you just love the idea that you can stick a vanilla bean in something and, voila, you've made something completely new, like vanilla sugar?! See the comment above; I'm going to look for that black bean recipe.

I always have vanilla sugar on hand...adds something nice to cookies.

Peabody, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Vanilla sugar is great, isn't it? I love it on French toast, too.

I've always wanyed to try making my own vanilla. Maybe it's time!

I wish I put my vanilla beans in everything, but sadly, I don't have a rich sugar daddy supporting me... yet!

Mimi, I've never made my own extract, but I know it's easy, and it would be fun to be able to control the strength and flavor. Let me know if you try it.

Brilynn, my friend Cindy buys her vanilla beans (and she's a pastry chef who uses lots of them) on eBay! I know there are sometimes very good deals on Amazon.com, too. And because you can use the beans over and over, it ends up being pretty reasonable. Until that sugar daddy comes along....

I am always tempted to buy the vanilla beans in this kind of packaging, they look so cute and adorable in the tubes. But I really have no use of vanilla beans because Malaysian food doesn't call for this ingredient. ;)

Rasa Malaysia, no vanilla in Malaysian cooking? I hadn't realized that. But I just thought of an excuse to buy without having to use: vanilla beans would make a great gift to bring to a friend who bakes!

hi lydia...i was searching info bout vanilla n found ur lovely web..been searching hin lo..wherecan i buy vanilla pod beans in malaysia...need it to cook with strawberry ..tks dear

Nina, I wish I could help you. I'd be surprised if you couldn't find vanilla pods in KL or Penang markets or baking supply shops. Maybe an online source like Penzeys would ship to you.

Rempah-Rempah offers Vanilla Beans at $15/Lb delivered to your door from Indonesia via Fedex 5-7 days lead time.

Vanilla Beans should always be affordable!
write to:

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Thanks so much for mentioning our GaGa's SherBetter! After reading your great recipe I thought you might also enjoy our Orange SherBetter as well. All of our fruit flavors are both creamy and tart...like the creamsicle flavor you're probably getting from your orange and vanilla bean sauce.

Again, thanks for posting the great recipe and including GaGa's!

Jim King
GaGa's Inc.

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