Learning how to make vanilla extract is easy. And if you start by late summer, you can make a superior homemade vanilla extract gift, perfect for anyone who favors self-sustaining living. Follow the simple vanilla extract recipe below. You’ll need vanilla beans + grain alcohol + time.
Reasons for Making Vanilla Extract
- You control the ingredients.
- You control the strength and quality.
- You can save money on a product that’s better than what’s available in stores.
- It’ll really impress your friends.
Imitation vanilla flavoring can contain phosphoric acid, corn syrup, and propylene glycol. In addition, the majority of synthetic vanilla comes from lignin, a natural polymer found in wood, as a byproduct of papermaking. Some derivatives made in Mexico are indeed extracts but use both vanilla beans and tonka beans. Though the tonka bean smells and tastes like vanilla, it contains coumarin, which can cause liver damage and has been banned by the FDA for use in foods since 1954. If you want to avoid consuming coumarin, paper byproducts, or the active ingredient in antifreeze, use pure vanilla extract.
What is Needed to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract
The Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans are the seed pods of orchids which originated with the Aztecs and were brought back to Europe by Hernán Cortés. Now several species exist globally, primarily cultivated within Central and South America, Madagascar, and the South Pacific. The most common variety is Madagascar Bourbon.
Online wholesale companies like Beanilla sell many varieties of beans in different grades. Tahitian vanilla beans have a floral aroma with tones of ripe fruit while the flavor hints at cherry-chocolate, licorice, and caramel. Tongan beans are extremely bold and pronounced. For subtle smoky tones, choose Mexican beans, which are perfect for baked goods and cream sauces. Indonesian beans, with a smoky/woody flavor, enhance rich desserts such as chocolate and caramel. Ugandan beans have bold, earthy tones of milk chocolate and a high amount of vanilla. With an overwhelmingly sweet and buttery aroma, Madagascar Bourbon is suited for baking and drinks. Indian beans, similar to Madagascar Bourbon, are sweet, creamy, and extremely aromatic. *Flavor claims are taken from Beanilla.com
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron, and a single bean can cost over $5.
To get the best deal, buy in bulk. By ordering several pounds you can pay less than fifty cents per bean. This may equal 800 beans but you can split the order with friends who also bake or make vanilla extract. Grade A is fragrant, moist, and full of vanilla oil, but less-expensive Grade B is fine. All varieties of bean make excellent for making vanilla extract; choose the flavor profile and price that best fits your needs.
Once you have the beans, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. The beans are best during the first year. Afterward, the flavor dulls and the pods dry up. Natural moisture might seep from the skin and crystallize as a dry powder, but this is perfectly safe to use. Dried pods are fine for making vanilla extract, but throw away or compost any beans that have become moldy.
As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I bought my first pint with trepidation. But I’d done the research. By purchasing grain alcohol, I make extract with two simple ingredients: the alcohol and the vanilla bean. No additional chemicals or foreign plant substances.
In the United States, vanilla extract cannot be called “pure” unless the solution contains a minimum of 35 percent alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon. Double and triple strength extracts are available.
Thirty-five percent alcohol is 70-proof. Liquors fitting this percentage are vodka, rum, brandy, ouzo, gin, whiskey, tequila, and other less-common spirits. Though some vanilla-brewers purchase rum or brandy for their extracts, seasoned chefs prefer theirs steeped in vodka. Why? Because vodka doesn’t introduce additional flavors, which allows pure vanilla to shine through in the finished product. Vodka has other advantages: If you have any left, you can make a deodorizing spray for your clothing or mix a few drops with gel food coloring to paint watercolor-style on frosting and fondant.
Top-shelf alcohol is not necessary. The cheapest spirits work just as well. If the extract is made well you won’t be able to tell the difference anyway, except on the store receipt. The color is irrelevant since a well-steeped tincture will be almost black. But be mindful of your gift recipients. If a loved one is allergic to corn, spend a little more money on pure potato vodka.
You need to steep the beans for at least two months. Four is the minimum for a top-quality extract. After that, the vanilla just gets stronger and more distinct. Simple advice: Don’t rush it.
How to Make Vanilla Extract
Collect the following:
- A clean jar with an airtight lid
- A sharp knife and clean cutting board
- Alcohol of choice
- At least a dozen vanilla beans per 8 oz. of alcohol
Did I make you recoil in sticker shock? Yes, you do need a dozen beans per cup of alcohol to make a good extract. Using fewer beans will result in a vanilla liqueur that won’t flavor your pastries.
Slice the beans lengthwise. Scrape your knife along the inside of each bean, collecting the caviar (seeds.) Place both caviar and the empty pod in the jar, cutting the pod if necessary so it will be completely submerged. Fill the jar with alcohol, leaving a little headspace so you can shake the mixture. Cap tightly. Store in a cool, dark location, since heat can affect the alcohol and light can break down the vanilla. Shake the jar every week or so and give it ample time to steep. The best and strongest extracts are so black that light refuses to shine through.
After four months, either strain out the beans/caviar…or don’t. I don’t strain mine unless I’m giving it to someone. Because of the high alcohol content, the extract won’t go bad if you let the beans remain inside. It’ll just get better with time. The downsides to this are that you have to spoon your product from around the beans or you might have black flecks within your desserts, as you would with real vanilla bean ice cream.
How to Make Vanilla Extract Using a Continuous Brew
If you often use vanilla beans to make custards and ice cream, you can start a continuous batch. This way you don’t have to wait another four months after your stash runs out. You also don’t have to buy additional beans.
Pour alcohol into a jar until it’s mostly full, then cap tightly. Be sure to leave headroom for liquid displacement. Each time you make a dessert from the beans, scrape the caviar into the custard but do not steep the pods. Instead, cut the pods to fit the jar of alcohol. Record the starting and ending dates of the mixture and how many pods go into the jar. Once you reach over a dozen beans per cup of alcohol, or more if you desire a stronger tincture, start a new jar. Be sure to shake the jars weekly and store in a cool, dry location. After four months from the ending date, your extract is ready to use or give away.
Making & Packaging Homemade Vanilla Extract Gifts
Online wholesalers offer empty jars from a single dram up to a gallon. Cobalt or amber glass prevents light from harming the precious finished product. With a printer and an artistic hand you can fashion labels for your homemade vanilla extracts. Tie a ribbon or piece of hemp twine around the cap then slide the bottle into a little silken or burlap bag. Or include the bottle in a box filled with fresh-baked bread, apple butter, and eggs from your flock of backyard chickens. Countryside Network has numerous tutorials on baking homemade bread, including this potato bread recipe.
With so many questionable products on the market, choosing one with pure content can be challenging. Homemade vanilla extract takes the guessing game away. It’s so easy to create and control … what are you waiting for? Have fun learning how to make vanilla extract at home!
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.