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« Cinq Jours à Paris, or If You've Gotta Turn 30, You Might as Well Enjoy It | Main | Cretan Holiday »

Project Vanilla

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Before you start jumping to all kinds of wrong conclusions about me, let me tell you what I don't do. I don't bake my own bread. I don't roll my own pasta. I don't simmer my own stocks. I don't make my own yogurt, cheese, beer, wine, or jam. I don't grow my own vegetables or herbs. I have been known to churn my own butter, but if you knew how insanely easy that is you wouldn't think much of it. I don't, as a matter of course, can, pickle, bottle or preserve much of anything. While I might do any one of these things occasionally - purely for culinary kicks, mind you - if you assumed my fridge and shelves are full of anything other than what I bought at the supermarket last time I was there, I'm sorry to say you'd be sorely, sadly mistaken.

I've told you all this not because I'm looking for your sympathy (or scorn), but so you can better appreciate the following. I do make my own vanilla extract, and if I can do it, I'm pretty sure you can too.

It's funny, my vanilla-making started without the fanfare of many of my other culinary projects. This spring's sourdough project, for example, required a level of planning, commitment and meticulous attention to detail more akin to building a nuclear bomb than cultivating a bit of fungus in a bowl. And while after completing Nancy Silverton's gruelling two-week boot camp of precision-timed twice-daily feedings I felt proud as a new parent when my first little loaf actually rose in the oven, that couldn't keep me from abandoning the poor starter to its fate in the back of the fridge a few months later. Preserve-making is another sad story; after forcing myself to get over my fear of canning one fateful day last year, I naturally assumed I would be canning up a storm every summer for the rest of my life, and quite possibly never buy mass-produced jam again. How has that gone, you ask? I think you know the answer.

But this vanilla thing, it all started so innocuously. So innocuously, in fact, that I didn't even know what I was doing until after I had done it. A couple of years ago, you see, I made my first bulk purchase of vanilla beans through the internet (at what I thought then must be misprinted prices), and all of a sudden I had a problem I'd never faced before: a growing pile of used beans that were still far too fragrant to throw away. I tried sticking them in sugar like everyone suggests, but I was going through beans so quickly that I ended up infusing every bag we bought, and I grew tired of having to run out to the store every time I wanted a pinch of non-vanilla-scented sugar to stick in my pasta sauce. I had a bottle of light rum on the shelf, though, and this brilliant idea hit me that if I stuck a few beans in the rum, after a few months I might have a very interesting cocktail mixer - maybe even one I could give as a gift, with a cute hand-printed recipe for a vanilla mojito or something.

So I put a few spent beans in the rum, stuck it back in the cupboard, and pretty much did nothing to it except open it every so often to throw in a new bean. I noticed the color getting darker and the aroma getting stronger, but it didn't hit me until about five months later when I finally decanted some that what I had actually made was not any vanilla-flavored booze, but a ripe, powerful and intoxicatingly fragrant vanilla extract. I quickly finished up my trusted Nielsen Massey and started using this in its place, and wouldn't you know, it was every bit as good, if not even better! I ordered more vanilla beans - Tahitian ones this time - and kept adding my spent ones to the bottle, topping the liquid up every now and then with whatever mild alcohol we happened to have on hand, and as the months passed the flavor grew stronger, bolder, more complex. That was a year and a half ago, and I've never looked back.

I feel a bit silly trying to convince you that you too can easily make your own homemade vanilla extract, like Nancy Silverton convinced me I could have bread as good as hers coming out of my oven every weekend when what would actually happen is that I would spend weeks creating a living thing only to have it end up in the trash, but really, I can't stress enough how easy this is. If you use vanilla beans regularly - and I'll give you a couple of sources for cheap ones in a minute - there's no reason not to; it's effort-free, it's more versatile than vanilla sugar, and it makes really great gifts (maybe even better than vanilla flavored rum!). And the best part? If you forget about it for a couple of months, it doesn't shrivel up and die, it actually improves. I'm not quite sure what it says about me that the one project I've had success with is the one that actually requires neglect, but hey, as long as there's great vanilla coming out of it I'm not going to sweat the implications.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

There are probably easier ways to do it, where you just use a set ratio of beans to alcohol and let it sit until ready. The beauty of this method, however, is that a) aside from the very beginning, you're only sticking used beans in there (which feels delightfully frugal), b) your extract will continue to improve as you keep adding new beans, and c) once you get the ball rolling, as long as you keep using vanilla beans in your kitchen you'll have an unending supply of extract on hand too. Pretty nifty, no?

Yield: 1 quart/liter to begin with, and as much as you like after that

1. Find a supplier of good, cheap vanilla beans. I buy mine from the San Francisco-based Vanilla, Saffron Imports, whose beans I can highly recommend (though interestingly enough, I haven't been all that impressed with their extracts); another good option is eBay; try The Organic Vanilla Bean Company or Vanilla Products USA - or just search for 'vanilla beans' to see all your local options. All of these companies will ship anywhere in the world, though the eBay sellers are probably the cheapest for that. I usually buy 1/2 lb. at a time (about 60-80 beans, depending on variety), which lasts me for about a year, depending on how much baking I do. If you can, get a mixture of Bourbon (Madagascar) and Tahitian beans; I usually prefer the Bourbon's flavor, but a mixture makes a very nice extract.

2. Buy two 4-oz (118ml) jars of vanilla extract - something good and strong, like Nielsen-Massey, Penzey's, etc. Trader Joe's is fine too. Just make sure it's real vanilla extract, not some nasty cocktail of chemicals. Now, put one on the shelf and start using it. Yes, it's going to take a while for your homemade stuff to be ready, and you'll need something to tide you over. Sorry, there's no way around it! The other one you'll be using to kickstart your homemade stuff. If you live in some remote corner of the planet where you can't buy vanilla extract, I'm afraid you'll have to skip this step. Your homemade extract will take a while longer, but it will still be good.

3. Buy two bottles of booze: vodka, light rum, bourbon, or whatever as long as it's around 40% alcohol. Nothing fancy, just the cheapest stuff your supermarket sells. Some people shy away from booze with its own flavor, but you'll be using it in such small quantities that it really won't make a difference, though if you're worried about that just use vodka. Again, put one bottle in the cupboard (no, this one is not to tide you over, so hands off!). This is your 'top-up' bottle which you will start using once you start decanting your own extract. You can, of course, buy the second bottle later, but it never hurts to be prepared.

4. Find yourself a 1 quart/liter glass container with a lid such as a mason jar, an old booze bottle, etc. Clean it well. Make sure it doesn't harbor any weird odors.

5. Pour one bottle of store-bought extract and one bottle of booze into the container. Now you need to add some vanilla beans. If you've already got some used ones lying around, lucky you - use those. If you don't, you'll have to sacrifice some new ones. How many you put in to start with is completely up to you; the more you put in the faster your extract will be ready. I think I started with 4-6 new ones, and added 3-4 used ones per month after that. Split them down the middle and throw them in. Put the lid on tightly, give everything a shake, and put the container in a cool, dark cupboard somewhere.

6. Carry on with your normal life, using both the extract on your shelf and your vanilla beans, only that every time you use a vanilla bean, throw it in the container afterwards. If you've simmered the bean in milk or something for your recipe, give it a good rinse first. Take the container out and shake it around once a week or so, at which time feel free to poke your nose in and see how things are developing. It will start out smelling powerfully like alcohol, but over time, the vanilla flavors will take over and the boozy smell will almost disappear.

7. Continue doing this for, oh, at least 6-8 weeks. The longer the better. Of course YMMV depending on your personal consumption habits, but what we're aiming for is that by the time you've finished that bottle of store-bought extract on your shelf, your own should be rich, fragrant and ready to start decanting. The other reason to wait until you've finished the supply on your shelf is that you can use the handy little bottle for your own extract.

8. When the container of homemade extract has reached your preferred strength, decant some into your own 4 oz bottle (or multiple little bottles, if you're going to give some away). Now get out that second bottle of booze you stashed away all those weeks ago and top up the container so it's full again. You'll need to do this every time after you decant. You can probably leave all the beans in there at this point, but as a general rule if things start to get too crowded in there I just remove a few of the mushiest ones. Place the container back in the cupboard to mature for another couple of months and repeat steps 6-8 as many times as you like. The extract you get from it will just keep getting better and better and better...

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Reader Comments (79)

What a great idea for Christmas presents! If I get on this now, I could have a few little bottles to give away... Thanks!

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered Commentersprite

Thank you for a much needed laugh! Indeed that post had me laughing out loud!

"I'm not quite sure what it says about me that the one project I've had success with is the one that actually requires neglect,"

is worthy of any quote book.

Sadly I am one of that rare breed who don't in fact like vanilla, but this post still had me reading to the end with rapt attention :)

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commentersarah

For the record, I do pickle, and I do preserve - but often just to preserve my own sanity in times of stress. This sounds like something impressive I could put in tiny bottles and give as christmas gifts, and preserve my reputation as a culinary genius. they will remain fooled!

Hand to Mouth

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterB

Wow! didn't know it was this easy to make. Thank you for sharing!

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKat

I do what Jamie Oliver does with his used beans. I put ordinary sugar into a blender with the whole bean and whiz it up, that gives me caster sugar (superfine) for my baking with the vanilla already in there and it uses the whole bean rather than just infusing my sugar. Vida x

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterVida

I think you're going to give Nielsen Massey a run for their money! I've often pondered starting some of my own vanilla extract as I use a ridiculous amount of vanilla beans but I've always been slight afraid. You've encouraged me!

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

I had been meaning to give this a shot. My mom arrived with some ends of vodka my grandpa keeps bringing to her house...so I have the booze. And a friend just hooked me up with some fantastic beans. I'm on it. Right away. Thank you.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

There. It took 5 min. Done. Thanks again!

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Thank you for the links!!!! Good cheap vanilla beans are so hard to come by : ). Very nice recipe indeed. And don't feel guilty about not making your own jam, there are plenty of very good quality ones out there ; ). One question, is your article about Belgium in the latest number of Food and Travel. It's out now but I only buy it when there is something that catches my eye and I could not see anything about Belgium when flicking through it.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAles

as I live in Munich, Germany (not so remote, but still devoid of vanilla extract), this is a godsend! since I have no starter extract, should I just substitue extra alcohol, or omit it entirely?

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteraudrey

FABULOUS ... and in perfect time for Christmas presents. I'm off to the kitchen to make a start - use up the current vanilla essence, all the beans in the house, and I know there's some vodka left over from the sloe and quince vodka (similar neglect thing) ... and then I'll be able to go shopping!

Thanks for sharing

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna

Ales - The Belgium article is in the October issue, their special 100th anniversary one. You can see the cover on their website (and in my own 'this month in print' section down right). That said, maybe the November issue is already out...?

Audrey - Ah yes, extract-less Germany. I'd forgotten! I wouldn't worry about substituting extra alcohol. It's not an exact science :) You might want to start with more beans, though, to help it gain strength faster. Maybe 10-12?

October 10, 2007 | Registered Commentermelissa

Have actually never used vanilla beans, though I've often been intrigued by recipes calling for them...thanks for pointing us toward cheap sources! Vanilla extract would make a great gift, though the new no-liquid airlines policies might make transporting little bottles of extract for the holidays difficult... Hm. Well, I may buy myself some beans & start making extract in any case! Thanks for the post.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEllen

What a great idea! but I have a question, what if you stick the vanilla beans in a fruit alcohol, like Calvados (apple) or Cointreau (orange), do you then have a vanilla-apple extract or a vanilla-orange extract? because that would be utterly cool.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHilda

Hilda - I haven't tried that myself, but I *suspect* that the apple/orange flavors in those liquors are not strong enough to be detectable in the kind of quantities you'll be using the extract, e.g. a teaspoon here and there. It might be possible to make, say, a vanilla-orange extract by throwing a few orange peels into your mixture, but I would definitely research it more before doing so.

October 10, 2007 | Registered Commentermelissa

Who knew making vanilla extract was so easy?! Thanks for sharing the method. This will definitely be on my to-do list for the next rainy day.

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLydia

Thankyou for the online shooping idea - the other day I was despairing at the prices of vanilla beans in stores here (Portugal). I went on ebay, scouted around a bit and - score! Now I just have to hope that the quality's good, and start looking around for more vanilla recipes.

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTallulah

Melissa, your writing is such a delight that I had to print this article not to miss a single word.
I can't wait to buy some rhum and try.

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterfanny

Fantastic idea.
So, the extract never goes bad, does it? Also, is it still alchoholic? Can I use it in cocktails?

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBre

Thank you sooooo much Melissa for sharing this project with us...can't wait to start this...One thing I do best is BAKING...so this will truly come in handy...hmmmm, I wonder...maybe I can dry the mushy ones after they have spent their time in the bottle, grind them up together with Irish Cream or Hazelnut flavoured coffee beans...

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbett q.

this is amazing! thank you for sharing--so practical (thrifty) AND delightful!

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterC(h)ristine

My aunt gave me this bottle called "everlasting vanilla" once. It had vanilla beans in it and instructions to fill it with vodka and such. I was convinced it would be awful, so I used the beans and chucked the bottle. Now I stand corrected!!

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMercedes

I think this is one of your most well-written posts-- absolutely delightful. I might consider making vanilla extract, but as somebody who cooks a good deal but has never touched a vanilla bean, I must ask: How do you go through so many? What should I be cooking if I want to have my own ready stash of used beans for the vodka bottle? And how "used" can a vanilla bean be and still be reusable?

October 11, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermdvlist

I thought about doing this for a few years now and had seen those beans on ebay but your step-by-step tutorial has convinced me and I have just the old brandy bottles to put to use!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMasPinaSarap

Hilarious read, nifty recipe plus wonderful photo - your blog is simply one of my all-time favourites!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEva

Don't forget to save some of that booze for your birthday celebration!

I hope you have a wonderful day.

Love, Mom and Dan

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMom

definitely an inspiring post, i also do not make my own bread or can my own jam, BUT, this post make me thought of using my unused (forgive me) vanilla beans and half bottle of vodka, though i have to get one soon to top up later :)

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterrokh

This is brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStickyGooeyCreamyChewy

I just ordered my vanilla beans - I can't wait to try this!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTellicherry

This looks so easy and perfect for gifts! I have one question, however: I have never used or needed vanilla beans in a recipe. I can still make this just straight, right? Or do I need to remove the seeds before sticking them in the alcohol?

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEliza

F-ing Genius!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKC

Hi Melissa -- your post, as usual, inspired a purchase and a project :-)

I have 1/4 lb each of the Bourbon and Tahitian beans on their way! I can't wait to start a batch. Plus, I think you're right -- this is great gift material. Who gets homemade vanilla for Christmas?? Well, the same ones who got homemade marshmallows dipped in chocolate from me last year...

Best wishes,

the zen kitchen

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDominic

My sister sent me your post this morning - ever since I turned her onto RSS, she's a fiend for food blogs. Anyway I "second" your thoughts on Vanilla/Saffron - great vanilla, so-so extracts. I just came home with a cheap bottle of vanilla vodka - hey! the bottle was pretty, it might be my jar of choice though now that I'm looking over your notes again, a narrow throat might not be a good idea since I'll be having to pull out the spent beans occasionally. I'm so glad to be doing this, now that vanilla extract is crossing the $10 for a couple of ounces mark. YIKES. I hope my friends aren't reading this for they'll learn what they're getting for Christmas this year ...

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlanna

now that's a great idea... i have a dozen half-empty bottles of booze standing on the wine fridge and been wondering what to do with them. nobody's going to drink all that spirit and they're not great for cooking - but vanila extract might be just the thing. with christmas coming up, i'll have even more vanilla beans hanging around and although I do it like vida, namely blitz the entire beans with sugar for vanilla sugar, there's only so much of it that i can use... thanks for this!

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

I've been wanting to make my own vanilla extract for a while now & you've inspired me to go ahead with it. And just in time for Christmas gifts. Thanks!

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTonia

I had the same bulk purchase of vanilla, and for a while now it´s been a vodka bottle of vanilla extract. so wonderful. rum was probably a better idea but I went with the barefoot contessa instructions. yours next time!

October 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterlobstersquad

I love projects which require neglect and have been making ratafias-3 so far, nectarine, plum, and fennel ones. The method is very similar. I just fear I may forget one completely, in the back of the fridge. (They need to be cool for the vegetable matter involved.)

Even if I don't make this-and I'm considering it seriously, I'm taking your advice about buying vanilla beans in bulk.Why did this never occur to me?

October 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterlindy

I've always known it was easy but never thought about doing it. Your article has motivated me! Now it's time to buy some beans from ebay. Thank you!

October 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

i love u..

u have NO idea :) it's been a long time since i typed in your url in my browser window.. somehow i forgot that yours was the first food blog i fell in love with.. n now that i'm back, and reading this post, i am reminded that first loves can't be forgotten that easily..

where may i ask do u order vanilla beans in bulk? i bake a lot and am dying to try making my own vanilla extract.. thanks!

October 16, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdanielle

ignore my question - i was so smitten i didn't read through the post :)

October 16, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdanielle

So now I know what I should do with those 2 pods sitting in my cupboard. This sounds so easy for someone like me. Great post...Di

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFaux Wood

Dear Melissa,
I have made many of your recipes and they have always turned out really well. Congratulations, on a great blog. I am definitely trying the vanilla extract.

I have been an ebayer for years, but never thought of buying vanilla on line. What an eyeopener. I was paying 1.20 euro per bean!! Thanks for everything.

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFoodJunkie

Dear Melissa,

Thanks for sharing the cheap source of vanilla beans! I have used lots of vanilla extract for my baking but not vanilla beans. Mainly because I find them too costly. I am going to buy lots of those and use it in my bake. My tasters will thank you. :)

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

Is having used vanilla beans mandatory or can you use unused ones as well?

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKC

Fantastic! Since I bake my own bread -- and pickle -- I can't see any reason why I shouldn't make my own vanilla extract. To my friends, this will look like I'm a total kitchen-fanatic. Great!

Thanks for a lovely blog.

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

LOL. I followed, and photo-chronicled, Nancy's starter directions too...for weeks...until it dawned on me that the original La Brea bakery (where they still make loaves...) is a 3 minute drive from my house...at which time I went and bought a few loaves. Kudos to you for actually baking the bread!

As for the vanilla...you are right, its a snap to do, and Im glad to see you recommending it!

October 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

I'm delighted to see so much enthusiasm for vanilla-making! I was worried I was the last person on the planet to realize extract making was such a cinch. Thanks, everyone, for all your lovely comments, and don't forget to drop by in a couple of months and tell me how your own vanilla projects are coming along.

Bre - No, it never goes bad, and yes, it still is alcoholic. As for using it in cocktails, that really depends on how strong you make it. The stuff I've made is really too potent to add more than a few drops to a cocktail, but if you have a higher booze/bean ratio I'm sure it would make a tasty mixer.

mdvlist - Yes, how do I use so many? Well, pretty much whenever I make something that calls for vanilla extract, I'll use the seeds from a vanilla bean or two instead (or even in addition) to the extract. I often make my own vanilla yogurt too, with vanilla seeds and sweetening stirred into a container of plain yogurt. As for how used a bean can be, just smell it - if it still smells like vanilla, it's extract material!

Eliza and KC - Yes, of course you can make this with unused beans. It's a little less thrifty, perhaps, but no less good! Just slice the beans in half lengthwise before dropping them in the alcohol (there's no need to scrape out the seeds - in fact they'll make the extract stronger).

Rachael - Lucky, lucky girl. For a few short months one supermarket here in Edinburgh started carrying La Brea bread, and I developed a severe addiction to it. Then for reasons unknown they discontinued it, at which point I decided to take matters into my own hands. Alas, my results were nowhere near as good...

October 18, 2007 | Registered Commentermelissa

I went and bought myself 1lb of vanilla beans. Now i'm starting to worry if custom will detain my beans!! Let's hope i get it next week!! BTW, It's a fantastic post!

October 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercenmrk


Greeting to Munich! Used to live there years ago, now in Heidelberg. You can now buy Vanilla Extract from Nielsen-Massey online here in Germany at Hagen Groten. www.besserkochen.de

Cheers, Kimberly

October 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

That's looks great!

October 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFlo Bretzel

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