Vanilla: we add it to ice cream, cookies, cakes and other sweet treats and probably don’t give much thought as to its origin. Vanilla extract is made by steeping the dried fruits of the Vanilla planifolia, an orchid native to Mexico, in alcohol. This process extracts the aromatic oils of the fruit, which dissolve readily in the alcohol, as both oils and alcohol share the property of being nonpolar. Most vanilla is actually cultivated in Madagascar, and thus the bees that the flower depends on to pollinate it do not live there. As a result, production of vanilla is quite a labor-intensive process, as the flowers must be pollinated by hand and the fruits must be gently hand-picked.
If you’re a baker, you know that a quality vanilla extract costs a pretty penny for not a whole heck of a lot of vanilla. When I say quality here, I mean real vanilla extract, not that vanilla flavored extract, which is likely made from vanillin gotten from the plant protein lignin. While that stuff tastes like vanilla, it isn’t vanilla and quite honestly, should be avoided as it just doesn’t taste the same.
A while back, I decided to make my own extract. It can’t be that hard, I thought. And it isn’t! I will also say that I will never again buy vanilla extract in the grocery store, because it’s not nearly as good as the kind I can make myself. A bit of patience is required as the completion of the process takes a year or more, but as you will see below, it’s totally worth it.
Here’s how I do it. You will need:
- 1 750 mL bottle of Everclear or Absolut vodka (the difference is in the alcohol content: 190 proof vs. 80 proof)
- 15 vanilla beans (I used Madagascar vanilla beans; Mexican vanilla beans would also work here)
Pour off about 1/4 cup of the liquor as you will need to make room in the bottle for the split vanilla beans. Using a sharp knife, split the vanilla pods so that the seeds are exposed, and drop them into the bottle of alcohol. If you have room, pour the alcohol you removed back into the bottle and cap the bottle tightly. Store the bottle in a cool, dark place for a minimum of 1 year.
Put this away in a cool, dark place and don’t bother it. You need to give the alcohol time to fully extract as much oil from those beans as possible. After about a year, your bottle will look like this:
The bottle above is the first bottle of extract I made using vodka, about 5 years ago. It is truly the best vanilla I have ever used! It is quite potent, and thus, I use less of it since the flavor is nice and concentrated. I’m hopeful that what’s left in this bottle will last until this time next year so that I can crack open the bottle I just started. I’m pretty sure that I won’t have to buy vanilla for a very, very long time again once the new bottle is ready.
Patience pays off with this one, folks. And it is well worth the time and money spent, especially if you bake a great deal. I am also told by SB that this vanilla adds a nice kick to a White Russian.