If you can afford to use vanilla beans in your sweet kitchen, here are some tips for making them last longer.
For infusing a liquid, or easier release of the sticky seeds inside, pop whole vanilla pod in the oven or toaster oven (300-400F) for the count of twenty or thirty seconds. Vanilla bean seeds are held together with an oily substance, so heating them up a little bit will help you to split the bean, extract the seedy interior, and begin the infusing process.
Split beans top to bottom, vertically, into two distinct halves. Lay on a flat surface and scrape interior out with a small sharp knife.
Knock the oily interior into the sugar you'll be putting in your infusion, cake, cookie, etc. "Smush" seeds into sugar with thumb, forefinger and middle finger. Sprinkle this sugar into chosen sweet thing.
If you knock those seeds into liquid for infusion directly they will stay in the clumps they feel comfortable in. Either all the vanilla bean seeds will remain in one place, or worse: when you "pass" liquid through a fine mesh sieve (as is the case for ice cream base (= creme anglaise), pastry cream, and many other custards, you will leave behind, in the sieve, much of the vanilla you hoped would get into the custards. If you smush the seeds into the sugar, you spread them apart and have better vanilla bean tasting results.
When you're done using the vanilla bean sheath, wipe it off and keep it in a warm dry place. When dry and brittle, grind with sugar in a sweet dedicated coffee grinder. Don't worry if you can't get it really fine, the whole vanilla bean is edible.
Try to buy vanilla beans that look dark and wrinkly. An overly wet/plump bean has been messed with along the way. Because some "middleman" are selling them by the pound they will do an illegal thing: plump them in water to make them heavier.
Keep vanilla beans in the refrigerator in an airless/tightly sealed ziploc plastic bag. You can freeze them but it's not necessary.
The vanilla bean is the fruit of one particular orchid. This orchid only thrives in rainforest's. Although vanilla is cultivated by humans, the technique for pollinating the flowers requires so light a hand that the flower doesn't suspect invasion. A long, very thin needle is precariously dipped into the long narrow channel of the orchid, and then it's quite a long process to wait for the plant to fruit.
The vanilla bean you're using has been fermented and dried, like coffee beans or cacao.
For more information please visit Patricia Rain, The Vanilla Queen's site. Buying vanilla from her insures you are buying sustainably grown vanilla beans. And that the people who did the hardest work reap the rewards of their meticulous patience.
If you live in the Bay Area you can buy beans in bulk direct from Pacific Gourmet. Or find a distributor in your area and go in a pound of beans with other bakers in your neighborhood. They last forever!
And you can get a lot of flavor out of one single bean if you take any of these hints...