Thursday, May 24, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Difficulty level: Very easy
Time consuming: Not actively, but there's a lot of wait time for the finished product.
Cost: Around $20
Benefit: 4 cups (32 fluid ounces) of PURE vanilla extract.

Materials: vanilla beans, paring knife &cutting board, vodka, container (if you're not gonna use the vodka container).

Vanilla extract I gifted a friend in a wedding basket.
Split vanilla bean.

Have you ever read the ingredients on a bottle of vanilla extract?  A bottle of McCormick pure vanilla extract is made from "vanilla bean extractives in water and alcohol."  Spice Select brand lists their ingredients as "water, alcohol, extractives of vanilla bean."  And if you'd like to go with a nicer, pricier supermarket brand, Rodelle Gourmet Pure Vanilla Extract contains "Vanilla bean extractives in water, alcohol, and sugar." Don't even get me started on the imitation stuff (it's synthetically processed from other plants and combined with water and alcohol)

And not to mention how expensive it is for even a small bottle - around $3-5 for a 2 oz bottle.  An 8 oz bottle at a gourmet grocery store near me sells for $18!

Making vanilla extract is possibly one of the easiest things you can do to personalize your baking.  People are always shocked when I say something is made with homemade vanilla.

The FDA regulates commercial vanilla extract to contain 13.35 ounces (in weight) of vanilla bean to 1 gallon (128 fluid ounces) of alcohol (35-40%).  If you were to replicate the exact amounts to make vanilla extract at home, that comes out to about 1 ounce of vanilla beans to almost 10 fluid ounces of alcohol (for a better grasp on how much liquid that is, remember that 1 cup of liquid is equal to 8 fluid ounces).  When I make my vanilla at home, I use a larger ratio of beans to liquid since I don't have machines or anything to help me extract flavors.

So let's get to it.

Start with 1 ounce of vanilla beans (approximately 8-12 beans; when I weighed mine out for this, it came to 11 beans per ounce). I buy mine on Amazon from a supplier called Vanilla Products USA (free shipping! But not if you buy direct from Vanilla Products USA).  I get the Madagascar Bourbon Grade B Extract Vanilla Beans (6"). (The last time I purchased beans, a friend and I split half of a pound [8oz] which in total cost $20.  We ended up with over 40 beans EACH for just around $10). Grade B refers to the appearance and moisture content of the bean.  Grade B is drier than Grade A (meaning that by weight, purchasing grade B gets you more bean and less moisture, which is fine since we're about to soak it in vodka).  Grade B is also not as pretty, the skin might be torn or broken.  Again this is fine, we're about to cut it open anyways.

Find yourself a nice container.  Preferably one bigger than 1 cup.  I found that 6 beans can displace about 2 oz of liquid.  Steralize if you'd like by following water bath canning methods.  I do this, but I don't think it's vital to the success of your vanilla.

For this batch, my husband picked me up Kroger's finest bottle of Popov (40%) measuring 1 liter.  1 liter is equal to 33.81 fluid ounces.  Don't believe me? Here, look.

Sorry this is sideways.  I can't figure out how to fix it in Blogger :(

So I poured my vodka into a Pyrex measuring cup so that I could slowly add beans and vodka and not worry about the whole bean/liquid displacement issue.  If one liter is just over 33 ounces, I should be able to just use my 4 cup measuring cup, right? Wrong.  Someone needs to tell Popov they are under promising and over delivering on the amount of product they sell.

That's definitely 36 ounces.

Rejoice over the almost 3 ounces of extra booze.  Then continue.

Grab your bean at one knobby end, and insert the tip of a paring knife 1/4-1/2" below the knot and slice completely through the bean all the way to the end.  Then drop the bean into your container and proceed with the rest of your beans.  You'll end up with some vanilla seeds (aka caviar) on your hands and it will smell delicious.
Here's what I'm calling the knobby, hooked, end.

Pour over top of your beans 1 cup of basic vodka that's 35%-40% alcohol.  I tend to buy whatever is cheap (only the finest Korski or Popov for this girl!)

Ta-da! What it looks like on day 1.
When all was said and done, I used 4 ounces of beans (45 beans) and 4 cups of vodka.

And that's it.  Now you have to wait.  Cap your container and put it in a dry, dark place, like inside of a cabinet or pantry.  Shake once a week or so for 2.  Whole.  Months.  That's right, 8 weeks.  Some other sources will tell you 1 month.  My mother would tell you 3.  I go with two, because that's about as long as I can wait before I want to use it and still feel like I haven't cheated.  As my extract ages, I will take pictures and update.

Since I used a large liquor bottle, this batch was relegated to the floor of my pantry with the (probably) skunked Hudy Delight and my broom.

*Updated on 6/21/12.
The vanilla will start to impart it's flavor almost immediately.  And you will see your vodka become darker in just a matter of days.  If you have no self control, like me, you'll probably open your bottle at least once a week to smell how yummy it is.

Did you wait two months? Good.  Strain your vanilla through a wire sieve lined with a coffee filter into a glass measuring cup (or any container, really.  I just like that because it has a spout for pouring).  Mmmm, doesn't it smell great?  I funnel mine into an old vanilla extract bottle I saved.  Or just store it in a jar or other container. 

All that great vanilla flavor, sans added water or sugar!

But wait!! Don't discard your vanilla beans and solids, put them back into your container, add vodka, and wait another 2 months for a whole new batch of vanilla extract.  This can go on for years.  Saving you money for sure in the long run, especially if you bake a lot, like me.  It also makes a great gift.

Bottom line: For 32 ounces of pure vanilla extract, you would've spent between $48-$80, depending on the quality and brand you buy at the store.  Take away the initial $20 dollar investment and you've saved $28-$60 on what can probably be a lifetime supply of vanilla extract for most people.  And if you do use it all, then refill and keep going, the savings just get bigger and bigger!

**6/21/12 update: I stopped taking pictures of my extract after each week because after it got dark, like it did after the first week, you couldn't really see a difference.  But with one twist of the cap, you could smell how aromatic the extract has become.
**7/21/12 Updated to include links to vanilla bean suppliers.
**12/19/12: If I can, I try to let the vodka and beans mingle together for about 6 months (if I'm patient enough), strain the extract from the beans, and put the "spent" beans in a mason jar to save for other applications.  I no longer add vodka to "top off" my extract, nor do I reuse beans to make more.  I do put used beans in a container of white sugar (2 beans to 500grams of sugar) to make vanilla sugar.  I have also scraped the caviar out of the used beans and saved it in a container for other uses (like sugar cookies, frosting, etc).


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