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I was shocked and delighted this year to receive a bottle of homemade vanilla extract from an old friend for Christmas. It was something I’d read about, made a note to look into…and just never pursued. It was a perfect gift. My friends and family know me pretty well I’d say!
I was able to skip the waiting period and got a pretty bottle with a label already on it. But, starting from scratch is really so easy, I knew I had to tell you all about it. And, more importantly, why we should really ALL be doing this.
Let’s Chat About Vanilla
It probably doesn’t surprise you that Vanilla is the second most expensive flavoring behind saffron. If you bake…well ever…you’ve purchased a bottle of vanilla extract. They’re pricey, but necessary. It goes in everything, and with good reason. Vanilla contains over 200 different chemical compounds that all combine to make that addictive, warm, rich flavor and scent. It’s a powerful bean.
It’s also incredibly labor intensive to produce, and only comes from a few select places in the world. Today, most of our vanilla comes from Indonesia and Madagascar, where they hand pollinate the flowers before ever starting the months long process of curing the pods. It’s really no surprise that by the time McCormick’s gets their extract on shelves, it’ll cost you $12 for a couple ounces.
A Word about Imitation Vanilla
If by the end of this post you’ve decided that this (incredibly easy) process is still not for you, I want to talk about the temptation of imitation vanilla extract.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s cheaper, I get a nice big bottle, and can you really even taste a difference?
Yes. Yes you can. Vanilla extract nowadays is a chemical imitation of only ONE of natural vanilla’s compounds: vanillin. While it’s truly incredible that we can simulate the scent and flavor of even that, it really can’t compete with the complexity of true vanilla.
As a fun fact, you might read somewhere that imitation vanilla is made from the oil glands found in the rear ends of beavers. Gross, and weird right?
It’s actually both true and false. At one point in history, somehow, somebody discovered that those oil glands did have the components necessary to imitate vanilla – and it was used. But in modern times, the cost of harvesting beaver butt glands is actually more expensive than a lab made imitation.
Still…gross to think about in your cookies.
How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract
To make homemade vanilla extract, what you need is simple: Vodka, vanilla beans, a knife, and a bottle. That’s it. Really really.
Alcohol does the extracting, but it doesn’t need to be a fancy, premium bottle. If you like, you can even choose a different alcohol all together! Dark or light rum, brandy, or bourbon will work just as well as vodka, but unlike vodka, they will affect the overall flavor of your extract. If you like the idea of vanilla and rum, maybe make a second bottle for special use! Just be sure you’re using something 80 proof or stronger.
When it comes to vanilla beans, it’s often cheaper to buy them online where you can’t check out the actual product. If you’re not looking to bake or cook with the actual beans, feel free to purchase Grade B beans. They’re cheaper and perfect for extract. Check out the reviews, and look for a reputable source. Amazon or Beanilla are both good options. Buying in a bit of bulk is fine. The beans will keep for a year or more when stored in a cool, dry, dark place (cupboard!)
Next, acquire a bottle. If possible, it’s preferable to have a nice dark bottle. Light and heat can affect the longevity and flavor of your extract. A dark bottle protects it, and bonus points for storing it in a cupboard away from heat sources. If you’ll use your homemade vanilla extract as often as I do, you’ll go through it faster than it could spoil anyway. Thanks high alcohol content.
All that’s left? Simply use the tip of a sharp knife to split the bean open and expose the sticky, delicious inside. Cut your beans into pieces small enough to fit into your bottle. Pour vodka over them. Close the bottle and shake.
Give your extract at least 8 weeks before use, but it will continue to improve with age for about 2 years. Add a new vanilla bean every six months or so, and keep it topped off with vodka before it gets too low.
As a suggestion, if you’re up for it, make a large jar of homemade vanilla extract instead. Simply pour a little into a smaller bottle for frequent use while the larger jar develops beautiful flavor.
Types of Vanilla
As you begin your searching for your beans, you’ll notice that there are a few varieties available to you, and each has a different flavor. Vanilla is affected by its source, just like a wine region affects the flavors of the grapes.
- Bourbon or Madagascar Vanilla – This is the most common vanilla bean, it’s rich and full flavor will produce an extract most similar to the store brands you’re familiar with. The beans are available at most grocery stores and online for a fair price.
- Indonesian Vanilla – These beans contains slightly less vanillin, and may produce a less rich extract.
- Mexican Vanilla: Vanilla beans from Mexico can contain less than half the vanillin than Madagascar vanilla beans, and have a more floral or fruity aroma.
- Tahitian Vanilla: The rarest and most expensive of the vanilla beans, these would produce a distinctly flowery, perfumed extract. They actually come from a different species of plant. I wouldn’t bother spending the money on these unless you’re curious!
For me, I’m sticking with Madagascar beans for now. I know they’ll produce that full-bodied, rich extract I want for my baked goods.
Does it really compare?
I was sold the moment that bottle of vanilla touched my hand. The cost is incomprable. I actually had a bottle of vodka left here from a party, but even if I’d bought it, it’s a $20 dollar bottle. I recently scored 4 vanilla beans for only $7 when my grocery had them on sale. That’s $27 dollars for 25 ounces of vanilla or $1.08 per ounce.
One ounce of McCormicks vanilla extract will cost you about $5 per ounce. I’m going to save nearly $100 dollars. Even better? I can customize it, change my vanilla beans, make it stronger by adding more beans, and will never run out.
BUT, just to make sure I could really convince you to try it, I conducted a taste test as well.
I made a simple batch of vanilla ice cream, and split it in two. To one I added store bought vanilla, and to the other my homemade vanilla extract. Even though my homemade extract was only 12 weeks old (aka, not at it’s peak of flavor yet), I added the exact same amount.
The ice creams looked exactly the same. I put them in separate containers and had 4 people plus myself do a blind taste test.
The results were split. Half, plus myself, preferred the batch with homemade extract, the others preferred the store bought batch. Since my homemade vanilla is so young, the flavor was more subtle compared to the punch of vanilla from equal parts store bought extract. Had I added more homemade vanilla extract, the ice creams would have been identical.
What we discovered is that given some time, the extracts will be indiscernible in flavor. I believe my homemade vanilla extract will eventually be better. Fresh beans, the variety of my choice, as strong as I want to make it.
I’ve used it since in baking, and I’m telling you, it definitely delivers on flavor. So if you’re interested in saving money, and controlling one more aspect of your food life, get that extract steeping.
I’m thinking a nice rum vanilla next is in order!
- Vodka or any other 80 proof or stronger alcohol you wish to use
- Vanilla beans
- Dark glass bottle
- Slice open the vanilla bean to expose inner bean.
- Cut bean to size to fit in bottle.
- Place in bottle, and fill with vodka.
- Cap and let sit in dark, cool place for at least 8 weeks before using.
- When ready to use, shake and use as you normally would!