Spring Project : Homemade Vanilla Extract

Photo Credit: John LeeEveryone loves vanilla, it’s that great aromatic sensation in freshly made ice cream, its almost as good as the brullee part of crème brullee, it adds just enough magic to pancakes to make brunch guests guess about your secret ingredient. But vanilla extract has some secrets of its own, and most of us don’t realize how big those secrets are until we read the label on the bottle.

At $9.95 for an 8oz bottle of the good stuff, Vanilla Extract runs over $150 a gallon. It gets worse, a quick look at the ingredient list shows water, alcohol, vanilla. ARGH! My inner Suze Ormon nearly flipped when I realized I pay over $150 a gallon for something in which the major ingredient is water!

Vanilla itself is potent stuff. Nip off the end of a vanilla bean and chew it, it’s so intense that if that were your first vanilla experience you might never go back again, but that’s a good thing because it’s proof that a little goes a long way. Put another way when making custards like crème brulee we know that a single bean can flavor a large quantity of cream. Traditional vanilla extract is based on a similar concept: vanilla beans rest in alcohol for a long period of time to extract all the essence of the bean. This also explains why in much of the world what we know as vanilla extract is called “vanilla essence.”  

Making vanilla extract at home is easy. You will need two vanilla beans, a clean, sealable glass container, and about a cup of alcohol. Some people use grain alcohol but given its limited use most people opt for vodka as its really easy to find other uses for it. I opt for vodka, the cheap stuff works perfectly here.

Split the vanilla beans lengthwise. Place them in the jar, fill with a cup of vodka. Allow to rest in a cool dark place for three to five months. It’s that easy.

To make my latest bottle of vanilla extract more photo-ready I split the beans leaving both ends intact. This allowed the seeds inside the bean to come into contact with the vodka without the brown sediment on the bottom of the bottle. It takes longer to make it this way. Splitting the bean completely, even scraping the seeds into the container, and then adding the vodka will reduce the time to about 3 months. A jar works perfectly but I reused one of those fancy schmancy maple syrup bottles with a clamp top, it’s not necessary, but looks nicer.