What to do with those empty vanilla bean pods . . .
When you're baking, nothing beats the fragrance and flavor impact of a real vanilla bean. And this is often a better choice over vanilla extract. (Did you know there are Mexican, Tahitian, and Madagascan varieties, each with its own distinct characteristics?) But vanilla beans can be expensive! (Hint: Whole Food sometimes carries an organic variety only $2.99/bean! Look for it in a jar in the spice aisle.) So once you've scraped out the seeds, are the empty pods useful?
Here are two popular suggestions you often hear:
"Save the empty pods in a jar in the refrigerator, then dry them in the oven. Use a spice grinder to grind them to a powder and use this powder in your baked goods."
My experience: This is not a great use. Why? The flavor of the pod is a little odd even though it does have some of that distinct vanilla flavor. I find it somewhat bitter (note: purchased vanilla powder is sometimes sweetened). So my opinion? It's not really worth the effort.
"Sink them down into a bowl of sugar for 'vanilla sugar.'"
My experience: It takes quite a few empty pods tucked down into a small amount of sugar for quite sometime before the sugar adopts a noticeable vanilla flavor, and once you add the sugar to something, the flavor can be lost. Additionally, the moist pods cause lumps in your sugar, and you have to "manage" the sugar by moving the pods around on occasion. So my opinion? It doesn't hurt, but it won't offer much.
My Best Experience?
Use the still-moist empty vanilla pods to infuse into cream or milk by immersing them overnight or for any period of time, such as a few days before you whip your cream. Scrape the pods once more to detach any additional seeds down into the liquid, then sink the pods and cover the liquid airtight, and chill. You'll get a bit more flavor if you warm the milk or cream with the pods for a couple of minutes first before placing it in the refrigerator to chill until ready to use. You can also tuck several of the empty pods down into your favorite maple syrup jar and leave them there to infuse.
How have you used empty vanilla bean pods effectively?