I love vanilla! Vanilla smells like the very essence of the exotic, far-off lands whence it came. That vanilla became a signature flavour of Western cooking is just plain weird, but I’m more than happy to inhale its seductive fragrance every time I bake something.
Vanilla from the grocery store is bloody expensive, so I resolved to learn how to make my own. I thought it would be difficult, or that the final product would taste like alcohol, but neither scenario came true! Making vanilla is time-consuming because each bean must be slit individually in order to release those gorgeous, tiny seeds that are the source of vanilla flavouring, but other than the lengthy nature of the beast, it’s easy, it’s relaxing (to me, anyway), and it’s economical! And it will last for literally decades! (Unless I use it all.)
For the cost of a half pound of beans (I got mine from Amazon) and two bottles of vodka (either vodka or bourbon can be used; the choice is yours), I made a total of four quarts of vanilla extract. Seriously. I even had a fair amount of vodka left over from the second bottle!
Use grade B beans, also known as “splits” as many of them have split open. Grade B beans actually impart a more concentrated flavour than grade A beans, rendering them the perfect beans for making vanilla extract. Hence their second, more common, name: Extract beans. They’re also less expensive than the grade A beans, a simply marvelous coincidence in my book. As for the alcohol, use an inexpensive brand. The good stuff will be wasted on making extract, because the flavour of the alcohol simply isn’t noticeable in the final extract. I used Smirnoff vodka because we had it on hand. (Naughty, naughty kitchenchantress!)
The extract must sit in a dark, cool place for at least two months before it is usable, and it must be shaken at least once a day for the first two weeks. That’s right: Shaken, not stirred. (I could not resist.) The vanilla scent is out of this world, and it will strengthen over the next few months. The extract is mature after around 6 months. It is as strong or as weak as you wish to make it – I used about 8 beans per cup of alcohol to make mine. Federal guidelines specify the use of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of vanilla extract (coming out to about 125 beans per gallon, or about 8 beans per cup), so I’m within regulation! Yay! You may double, triple, even quadruple the number of vanilla beans per cup of alcohol. Again, the choice is yours.
Homemade vanilla extract smells deeper, richer, and cleaner than the stuff from the grocery store. Even well-known brands have a faint wood-pulpy smell that you may not have even noticed until you’ve smelled homemade extract that uses NO ingredients other than vanilla beans and booze. Vanilla extract you’ve made yourself imparts a truer taste and, depending on the strength of the extract, adds a more powerful vanilla flavour than store-bought extract. Professional bakers usually use triple strength vanilla extract, bless their vanilla-loving hearts.
Onward with the extract! (Here’s where I run around brandishing a broadsword and falling over backwards with it.)
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You will need:
Inexpensive bourbon OR vodka (I used vodka)
Approximately 8 – 10 grade B vanilla beans per cup of alcohol used (for regular strength extract; use double or triple the number of beans per cup if you wish to make double or triple strength extract, respectively)
Clean GLASS container with an airtight lid for maturing the extract (Mason jars or extract bottles are highly recommended)
Clean plate (OR clean cutting board that has NOT been used for savory items)
Sharp knife, for slicing open beans
Blunt-tipped knife, for scraping out seeds (you can also use your very, very clean thumbnail)
The room in which you’re working will need to be free of any strong odours, as these odours could affect the taste of your extract. Remember, the extract will be in a container for long-term storage, so any residual flavours in your room or your equipment will affect the final taste of the extract. I don’t have a cutting board for use only with sweets (I keep meaning to get one…), so plates it is for me. I find it helpful to use two plates, one for cutting and one for holding the beans I’ve yet to cut.
You’ll also need at least one very sharp knife (I was doubly prepared with two), for slicing the ends of the beans off and for slitting each bean open, and either a blunt-tipped knife or your very, very clean thumbnail for scraping out the seeds, or caviar, of each bean. You’ll also need a clean container (or multiple clean containers, depending on the quantity of extract you’re making) with an airtight lid (an airtight lid prevents unwelcome odors from entering your maturing extract and interfering with the nascent flavour), into which you’ll place the caviar as you scrape it out as well as the sliced vanilla beans themselves. Have enough containers on hand to hold the volume of alcohol you’re planning to dispense. Keep in mind that you’ll need to leave room in the container(s) for the vanilla bean pieces to secrete a little water and a little oil, which they will do over time. Again, as stated above, ensure you have at least 8 beans per cup of alcohol on hand so that your extract will be of adequate strength.
Start by slicing off the ends of each bean. This makes slitting the beans easier, in my book. You can leave the ends on, if you wish, but they tend to be a bit drier than the rest of the bean and thus can yield little flavour to the extract while it’s maturing. Discard the ends, or add them to an airtight container of sugar to make vanilla sugar (sugar will absorb the vanilla flavouring from these cut ends within about two to three weeks).
Next, carefully slit open each bean – without simply cutting it in half! Though if this happens, it isn’t the end of the world, and you can still scrape the seeds out of the split bean – and use either the dull tip of a knife or your very, very clean thumbnail to scrape the caviar out of the bean and into your waiting container. Once all the seeds are scraped out of the bean, slice the bean into pieces (the size of these pieces is entirely up to you; just make sure they’ll fit inside your container) and add these pieces to the container.
When you’re finished de-seeding and slicing the vanilla beans, and they’re all cozy inside their storage container, pour your chosen alcohol into the container until the desired volume is reached. Important: Do not fill the container completely! Leave at least an inch and a half from the rim of the container to allow secretions from the beans. They will release a little bit of water and some oils.
Tightly close the container and admire your handiwork! Then shake the container. The contents will darken immediately, and will continue to darken over time until they are a gorgeous, deep brown – almost a black.
Store your extract in a cool, dark place in its airtight container for at least two months, shaking at least once each day for the first two weeks. Shake once a week thereafter, until the extract is six months old. After two months, the extract can actually be used (though it isn’t at its full strength yet). After about six months (though some say eight months), the extract is mature.