Visions of Vanilla

Homemade Vanilla Extract for Holiday Baking and Gifting…

It calls for only two ingredients, five minutes of prep time and a jar. No need for an oven, stovetop or food processor. But what IS required is time. And loads of patience. Four or five months of patience.

Making homemade vanilla extract is one of the easiest things in the world. And the taste is so much richer and more flavorful than the store-bought option. The added beauty is that you get to decide how strong or mild you want it. Plus, you will save a bundle of money.

Before we get into the recipe, here are a few things to consider when going the DIY route:

Alcohol is a Key Ingredient
Yes, alcohol – typically vodka – is one of the two ingredients needed to make vanilla extract. But remember: The store-bought variety also contains alcohol. By FDA standards, pure vanilla extract must have a minimum of 35 percent alcohol, the same proof as most spirits found in the liquor section of the grocery store.

Vanilla beans have hundreds of flavor compounds; some are water soluble, most are alcohol soluble. 

Alcohol is the most efficient agent for extracting the robust flavor from the vanilla beans. Nearly all of the alcohol burns off in cooked foods; the alcohol is simply the carrier for the flavor. And one or two teaspoons of extract is all that most recipes require, so it is an infinitesimal amount.
But if, for whatever reason, you prefer a non-alcohol version, you can substitute alcohol with food-grade vegetable glycerin. This method drastically shortens the shelf life of the extract.

It’s a Real Money Saver
The major vanilla extract brands charge about $9.50 for a tiny 2-ounce bottle. And at our home, it seems as if vanilla was always on our shopping list. That 2-ounce bottle is probably fine for those who don’t cook or bake often, but it adds up.

A quart of homemade extract costs roughly $30 to make. Some back-of-the-napkin math shows that an 8-ounce jar will run you about $7.50 – or less than $2 for a 2-ounce bottle.

So not only are you saving a ton of money, you will have a richer, tastier vanilla taste in all your recipes.

Know Your Beans
The three most common source of quality vanilla beans come from Madagascar, Mexico or Tahiti – and each of these varieties offer different tastes:

• Madagascar: Sweet, creamy, velvety, mild
• Mexican: Spicy, creamy, hints of clove and nutmeg
• Tahitian: Floral, fruity, light, hint of cherry

Alcohol Tips
Do not use flavored or infused spirits. It will take away from the natural flavor of the vanilla. Also, using high-end premium spirits is a waste of money. In this unique case, the cheap stuff on the bottom shelf works equally well. Most recipes call for vodka (my personal choice), but you can experiment with rum, whiskey or whatever floats your boat.

Did You Know? A Little Vanilla Trivia
Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron. Cultivating the vanilla seed pods is labor-intensive, driving up the price. The herb is used in virtually every culture in the world. 

The Waiting Game
For most of us, December is the month when we typically spend more time than normal in the kitchen – baking traditional treats for your family and homemade gifts for friends. Unfortunately, you will have to wait until next year to enjoy this batch of vanilla extract.

It takes time for alcohol to extract all the flavor and color from the bean. And there is no way for you to rush the process. Frustrating, I know. But trust me when I tell you it is worth it.

Start the homemade project this month and you will reap the tasty benefits in the spring of 2021. It’s just one more good thing to look forward to – and we can all use that!

As mentioned earlier, this is the easiest recipe you will ever read. Even a PB&J sandwich is more complicated than this.

• Prep time: 5 minutes
• Cooking time: 0 minutes
• Yield: 1 cup (8 ounces)
• What you will need: A jar or container that can hold at least 8 ounces

• Vanilla beans: 4 whole beans
• Vodka*: 1 cup (8 oz)
*If you prefer an alcohol-free extract, substitute the vodka with ¾ cup food-grade vegetable glycerin and ¼ cup water.

Step 1. Open the vanilla beans.  Use a paring knife, split each vanilla bean lengthwise, cutting halfway through the bean to expose the seeds.

Step 2. Combine ingredients.  Place vanilla beans in a glass jar or small bottle. (I use a standard Mason jar.) Pour in the vodka and submerge the beans to cover. Secure the lid on the jar or bottle. Shake gently, not vigorously.

Step 3. Store and wait.  Store in a dark place for at least four months. It should be a dark, rich amber color.

Step 4. Replenish as needed. Continue to gradually refill the bottle with more vodka as you use the vanilla extract.  (The beans will last for at least two batches of vanilla extract.)

About Terry Olson

Terry loves culinary arts, adult beverages and hiking in the North State wilderness. You may find him soaking up the sun at one of our area’s many state or national parks or sitting on a barstool sipping on a cold locally brewed craft beer.

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