For years, I resisted making my own vanilla extract, trusting my extract needs to companies that did an exceptional job of it. I didn’t believe that I went through enough of it to justify the extra expense of vanilla beans. This went out the window a year ago when I realized I’d blown through a $20 8-ounce bottle of vanilla extract in one vanilla-fueled frenetic holiday baking season. Ouch. Taking a cue from The Wednesday Chef, I decided it was time to make my own and I haven’t looked back since. Here’s how you can do it too:
1. Buy vanilla beans: David Lebovitz has a great explainer on vanilla beans and a bit about the industry worth reading before you get started, but if you’re eager to just get shopping, a simple Google search for “buy vanilla beans” will return more results than anyone will need. My recommendations are two-fold: If you can find a site with unfiltered outside reviews from customers (a clue is when not all will be glowing or 5-star), do so, and, Buy your beans by weight, not number because if the beans are smaller than average, you don’t want to feel shorted. A quarter-pound bag will yield enough for 2 to 4 16-ounce bottles of vanilla extract, depending on bean size. (My batch yielded 4 bottles, but the beans were on the small — but no less delicious — side.)
2. Get a bottle to store your extract: Get a couple extras, because this makes fantastic gifts. An old, well-sterilized vinegar or oil bottle will work here, or a small wine bottle, or even an old glass vanilla bottle. Or, you can buy new ones. An amber bottle will better protect the extract from light and heat, though I’ve used clear ones so that I can see how the steeping is coming along, and just store it in a dark cabinet. [I’ve gotten mine from Specialtybottle.com.]
3. Buy alcohol: Alcohol is used as a base for extracts because it doesn’t spoil and is easily infused with flavors. The gold standard of extracts is pure alcohol, but that’s not readily available everywhere. Instead, I use vodka, which is by definition colorless and flavorless. On a tip from a reader, I couldn’t resist making a bottle last year with half bourbon and half vodka, but I was shocked (shocked!) to find the bourbon an unwelcome distraction from the pure vanilla flavor in the vodka-only extract. I don’t know me anymore, either.
4. Get to work: I use 1 whole vanilla bean for every 2 liquid ounces of alcohol. So, for an 8-ounce bottle, I use 4 whole beans, for a 12-ounce bottle (pictured up top), I used 6, for a 16-ounce bottle (the one I made last year that sparked this conversation), I used 8 beans. I go solely by bean count; I don’t fuss about whether the beans are bigger or smaller because bigger doesn’t necessarily mean more flavor.
Split each bean lengthwise and drop in your empty bottle. If your bottle is short, you can first cut your beans down in size so that they’ll easily fit. Then, split each bean lengthwise and drop in your empty bottle. Fill to a 1/2-inch from the top with alcohol. Give it a few shakes and place it somewhere that you’ll see it, like a cabinet, but away from the light.
5. Be patient: For the first week or two, I give the bottle a little shake — and who are we kidding, a deep inhale of admiration — whenever I see it but I’m not sure there is any scientific evidence that this speeds the process along. Within 5 days, your extract will already be a medium amber color (see top photo). Most people recommend that you wait 2 weeks to use it, but I prefer to wait 4 to 6. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m all about getting the maximum impact from my investment and at 6 weeks, it’s a downright near coffee-colored luxury unmatched by anything you can buy in the store. It is worth the wait.
6. Plan ahead for next time: When last year’s bottle dipped near the 1/3 full mark, I started this next one so it will be good to go whenever the need arises.
* On reusing beans: A common suggestion is to simply refill your vanilla bean bottle with more alcohol as the volume dips, but I couldn’t bring myself to dilute something so I’d so patiently steeped to a deep intensity. I decided that I would instead reuse the “spent” beans. So, when my first bottle is full kicked, I’ll use those beans towards the next one, perhaps then only needing 6 fresh ones instead of 8. I’ll make sure to cut the new ones to a different length, so when that bottle is empty, I’ll know which ones are twice-spent and which are not.