If you ask me, vanilla gets a bad rap. A lot of people – especially those who don’t bake - perceive it as bland and boring. I don’t agree. High quality vanilla beans are delightfully fragrant and earthy, with either warm and spicy or subtle floral overtones, depending on their variety. Ditto for a good, pure vanilla extract. They make me swoon!
Those of us who bake regularly appreciate the virtues of vanilla extract or essence, as it is sometimes called. We use it with abandon in cakes, cookies, caramels, custards and ice creams. I, myself, have been known to even dab a drop or two behind each ear from time to time. But mostly, I try to reserve it for culinary purposes, lest I waste too much of that intoxicating – and pricey - amber ambrosia.
As with most things, you get what you pay for. Vanilla is no exception. A 4-ounce bottle of a top quality extract can run you about ten dollars or more. If you use as much of the stuff as I do, that really adds up! That’s one of the reasons I started making my own vanilla extract a few years ago. I can make a liter-sized jug for about thirty dollars, which rounds out to under four bucks for the same 4-ounces that I used to pay lots more for. And, homemade vanilla extract is so ridiculously easy to make. There is simply no way to mess it up!
All you need to get started is a bottle of booze and about a dozen vanilla beans. Yes, vanilla beans are expensive too. But, there are several online sources where you can buy them in bulk for a better deal. I’ve done the math, and it does work out to be cheaper. Plus, you can supplement your extract with leftover beans that you’ve already used for something else.
So, let’s make some vanilla extract!
There are many varieties of vanilla beans produced in numerous countries around the world. The most popular are the Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian beans. Madagascar beans are probably the most sought after. They are considered to be a superior bean with rich, dark and buttery flavor. These are the beans most commonly found in most supermarkets. Mexican beans have a smooth and almost smoky quality to them. And, Tahitian beans have a more floral aroma with hints of fruit, making them well suited for pastries and ice creams. The kind of vanilla beans you use depends on what qualities you’re looking for in your extract. You can choose just one kind or a combination of them. It’s totally up to you.
Almost any kind of booze will work for making vanilla extract, but the most popular kind is vodka. Vodka is flavorless and colorless, so your extract will have a purer vanilla flavor. I, however, like to mix it up a bit and also use other liquors. My favorite one that I’ve made so far was with a golden rum and a mixture of Madagascar and Mexican beans. The resulting extract was warm and rich with a slightly spicy undertone. It was perfect in compotes and heavier baked goods like carrot cake and gingerbread. I’ve been told that bourbon also makes a great vanilla extract. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s next on my list. And by the way, you don’t need to waste money on the good stuff either. This is one time when cheap booze won’t give you a headache the next morning!
The first thing to do is pick your poison. I’m making two batches of extract: one with vodka and Tahitian beans; and one with rum and Madagascar beans.
Pour a few fingers worth out of the bottle and make yourself a cocktail. Or bake a rum cake. Whatever. You’ll need some room to add the vanilla beans.
Add at least three beans to the bottle for each 8-ounces of liquid. These are liter bottles, so that would be about twelve beans. Make sure you split the beans with a sharp knife first, so that the vanilla flavor can really permeate through the liquid. I like to add a few extra beans, if I have them. There’s no such thing as too much vanilla in vanilla extract!
Put the cap back on and give the bottle a few good shakes, set it in a cool, dark place and forget about it. Every week or so, or whenever you think about it, go back and shake the bottle a few more times. You’ll notice that each time you do, the infusion will be a little darker than before. After about eight weeks, your vanilla extract will be ready to use. Of course, the longer it “matures”, the more intense your extract will be. I have a bottle that’s been in my liquor cabinet for over a year. It’s practically reached senior citizen status!
I pour my extract into smaller bottles as I need it, and let the rest keep soaking up more vanilla-ness. Every so often, I’ll add a few more beans and top the bottle off with some more alcohol. That way, I’ll never run out. I’ll also throw in an extra bean whenever I have one leftover from another recipe. You can rinse and dry them and use them over again. The more the merrier!
Whenever I put up a new batch of vanilla extract, I like to make at least two bottles – one of which I reserve for gifts. I buy small amber bottles and fill them with some extract. Then, I make pretty tags with the recipe attached. Everybody loves getting a bottle of my homemade liquid gold!
Homemade Vanilla Extract
- 1 liter bottle of high-proof alcohol like vodka, rum or bourbon
- 12 vanilla beans
- A little patience
- Split each vanilla bean down the middle, lengthwise, with a clean, sharp knife.
- Pour out about 2-ounces of the alcohol and reserve for another use.
- Add the vanilla beans to the bottle of alcohol, cover tightly and shake.
- Place bottle in a cool, dark place and let sit for at least 8 weeks – longer is better. Each week, give the bottle a few shakes.
- When ready to use, decant into smaller bottles