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Can Vanilla Beans Go Bad?

There is just something about the aroma of vanilla that adds a heartwarming twist to drinks and desserts. And if you love using the real thing, freshly-harvested vanilla beans will always trump vanilla extract. Real vanilla beans yield a more intense aroma compared to the essence.

So you’ve bought a couple of pods, and already used one or two of them. The rest sits in storage, and you start to get anxious about them. The beans were quite expensive, so questions like “can vanilla beans go bad?” or “how long do these pods last?” naturally come up. You don’t want the beans to go bad, after all.

This article answers all (or most) questions about storage, shelf life, and going bad of vanilla beans. Continue reading to learn how to tell if the beans are spoiled, and what are the proper storage practices to retain quality for the longest.

Half of vanilla bean
Image used under Creative Commons from Joy

Can Vanilla Beans Go Bad? How To Tell They Are Bad?

Like all fresh and whole herbs and spices, vanilla beans can spoil. If you don’t pay attention to storing them properly, they can get moldy.

An important thing to remember here is that the beans can also develop frosty crystals on the surface, and those crystals are not mold ([BN]). They are made of vanillin that moved from the inside to the surface while the bean started to dry, and they are perfectly safe to eat or use. Do not mistake this frost for mold. Obviously, if there’s actual mold, you should throw out the beans.

If you store the beans well, however, they rarely spoil. More often than not, they slowly degrade in quality and the flavor and aroma you’re looking for is gradually fading away. If you notice that those qualities aren’t as intense as they used to be, you can discard the beans for quality reasons.

Vanilla beans on a wooden cutting board

Or, what I suggest you should do is to use more beans than the recipe calls for. The less taste is left, the more you need to add to get the desired outcome. As simple as that. To learn how much flavor is available, cut a small piece, and crush it between your fingers.

If your beans came in a plastic vacuum-sealed package, and there’s brown liquid inside the bag, that’s okay. It’s the oil squeezed from the beans in the sealing process ([BN]).

Speaking of changes of quality over time, let’s talk about the shelf life of vanilla beans.

Vanilla bean cut lengthwise
Vanilla bean cut lengthwise

How Long Do Vanilla Beans Last?

Determining the shelf life of the beans is tricky. If you buy them in the supermarket (where you most likely overpay), they should come with a best-by date on the label. Same thing if you purchase them online. Of course, that date is only an estimate of how long the beans will keep quality.

The better job of storing them you do, the longer they will retain freshness. That being said, the shelf life of beans that producers give is usually around two years ([BN]).

That doesn’t mean the beans will grow mold or become tasteless past that date. As I already mentioned, the beans degrade in quality over time, and it’s up to you if you still find them okay to use or not. So even if your beans are a couple of months (or even years) past their date, if there’s no mold, you can probably use them.

Obviously, the flavor and aroma will be nowhere near fresh pods, but chances are you can get the desired taste if you use enough of them.

Vanilla sticks with a flower on a wooden table
Vanilla sticks with a flower on a wooden table

If you buy and use beans regularly, Beanilla, one of the leading online sellers of vanilla beans, recommends that you buy only as much as you need for 6 to 8 months ([BN]). This way it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will get the optimal flavor.

Last but not least, if you have no idea if or when you’re going to use the beans, it’s probably best for you to make homemade vanilla extract. It lasts longer, has a variety of uses, and making it is pretty simple.

All you need is beans, vodka (or another high-proof alcohol), and a proper beans to alcohol ratio ([BN]). And if you don’t use vanilla extract at all, gift it to someone who’s into making pies and other baked goods. They will appreciate it.

Spices, including vanilla beans
Spices, including vanilla beans

How To Store Vanilla Beans?

Vanilla beans usually come either vacuum packaged or in long glass vials. If you plan on using the beans within a couple of months of buying, leave them as-is. Otherwise, it makes sense to open the package after 4 months (for vials) or 6 months for the vacuum-sealed packages, even if you don’t plan on using the beans then.

That’s because, unlike most food products, fresh beans benefit from airing ([BN]). To retain the best quality, you should remove then from the package every few weeks and let them sit on the counter for about 15 minutes.

When it comes to packaging, wrap the beans in wax paper or plastic wrap, and put into an airtight container or freezer bag. The latter will probably be the best option because you can squeeze out almost all of the air from the package. This way, the beans don’t dry out as quickly.

For place, choose one that’s cool and dark. A cabinet in the basement or pantry is optimal, but one in the kitchen can work too. Just make sure it’s away from sunlight and any sources of heat. Storing the beans in the fridge is risky, as they might draw moisture from the environment (if the container or bag isn’t sealed tight) and get moldy.

Last but not least, if your beans have dried out, you can rehydrate them. Put the beans in either milk or warm water for a couple of hours ([BN]) before using. The process will help, but don’t expect miracles.

Cutting a vanilla bean lengthwise
Image used under Creative Commons from Whitney

In a Nutshell

  • Vanilla beans develop white frost when they dry. It’s vanillin, and it’s perfectly safe for you to eat. Don’t mistake it for mold.
  • Producers usually estimate the shelf life of their beans to be about two years. Of course, the pods can stay safe to use much longer, but they will slowly lose flavor.
  • For best results, you should store beans in a cool and dark place, with as little air as possible, and air them every couple of weeks for 15 minutes.