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« Cinq Jours à Paris, or If You've Gotta Turn 30, You Might as Well Enjoy It | Main | Cretan Holiday »
Tuesday
Oct092007

Project Vanilla

1500661704_38aaa1c922.jpg
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)

I appreciated this how to. Thanks so much.Would the process be the same for lemon extract?

October 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMaryann@FindingLaDolceVita

Melissa- this was such a hilarious/enlightening post and quite timely. My family has decided to do homemade gifts this year: not less time consuming than shopping, but much more fun, and I'm definitely including some homemade vanilla (per your instructions) as part of my gifts. I just started my own big Mason jar this afternoon, and away we go... Thanks for sharing such a fun discovery!

October 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

WOW~!

Thanks so much for this one ~ I've made Liquors with vodka and flavorings but never thought of Vanilla!

As my source from Mexico has gone dry.. [ie: doesn't travel anymore ;~( ] this is a godsend!

Wonderful site and for a first time reader.. great food!

October 24, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterlea

I do love a project. Great idea Melissa. And loving the idea of buying vanilla beans in bulk.
Do you have any plans to experiment with other extracts?? Love the pic too.

October 24, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjules

Brill!!

Xmas pressie for fellow foodies now done and dusted!!!

October 26, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterpurple goddess

I started reading your blog a few months ago when Mark Ruhlman put a link to your cultured butter recipe. I fell in love, and started making my own butter (which is easy and tastes primo!). I saw your vanilla post on Thursday last and immediately ordered 1/2 lbs of beans online and am awaiting their arrival. I thank you for your excellent writing and your easier than dead easy recipes. They make me feel like a domestic genius.

October 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlexa

What a forehead-smacking moment! What a great way to work those beans for all their worth.... (wait, that doesn't sound right!) Hahaha!

Thanks for sharing, what a wonderful project for those of us who have less patience for those fussy kitchen things!

*Runs off to buy more beans.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKari

Here via Craftzine.

We've been doing this largely for the same reason you started, because damn it seems like such a waste to throw those "spent" beans out. Except that we use top shelf Bourbon. And we don't use it for v. extract. We use it for drinks!

Now, the Vanilla Bourbon is a hit at all the parties. It really works well in diet coke. YUM.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercavalaxis

Love this idea!
I've gone to e-bay to buy the beans to put in the rum to decant into these cute bottles I've been collecting to make the vanilla extract to give as Christmas 2007 homemade by me cause I love this idea!

November 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline

Melissa, I too have been making my own extract for a while now. I actually just finished some. Can be a bit addictive. :) But I love to do it and it is so easy. I keep vanilla beans in bulk as well which I buy very cheap on ebay and the quality is excellent. My extracts come out very strong. I actually have a bottle of Neilsen-Massey which I'll probably use in more of my homemade extract. You have a great post on this top. Thanks.

November 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Hmmmmm, good idea!

November 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny

This is a fabulous idea! I hope you don't mind but I am going to share your idea with my readers too! With a little link love of course!! I am wondering about small glass bottles to use for gift giving! This is a great recipe! Thanks again! Mislove

November 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMislove

I take 1.75 liter bottle of cheap $15 vodka to which I add 40 Grade A Gourmet 7" Bourbon PNG (Papua New Guinea) vanilla beans. Gourmet, Grade A or Prime beans are premium, chef's quality beans - plump and full of moisture. Split open each bean lengthwise and scrape out beans with spoon. Add beans and then entire scraped pod to vodka. Cap and place in cool, dark place. Shake bottle every month. Wait two to six months. If you desire, strain to remove beans and pods for clarity. Extract should be very dark and you should barely be able to see through it when you hold it up to the light. As Jamie Oliver would say: Easy-Peasy. Rule of thumb: Use at least ten beans for every pint of extract. This will ensure a strong extract. I purchase my vanilla beans from Vanilla Products USA on Ebay. Last purchase was for one lb (approx. 100 beans) at a cost of $25 plus $5 shipping. Trust me - you'll never go back to store bought again. Plus, you're saving tons of money ($15 in beans=1.75 liters of vanilla extract).

December 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Johnson

Thanks to your post, I won a half-pound of beans from Vanilla Saffron Imports in a contest at Steamy Kitchen! (Everyone listed something they'd like to make with the vanilla, and then winners were drawn at random. I listed your extract.) So thanks!

I'm back to double-check on how to get the extract started. Do you recommend sticking with one kind of alcohol? I've got both vodka and rum I could use, and I'm wondering if I can mix them or if that would just taste too weird.

January 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKitt

Great recipe! I also love to make my own extract and have found it to taste so much better than regular store bought extracts! I also wanted to suggest using a company called Beanilla.com to purchase vanilla beans. They have several different types of beans to purchase, which is fun to test and compare! I currently in the middle of making both a have a batch of Madagascar vanilla extract and a batch of Mexican vanilla extract!

January 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJen

How do you use so many vanilla beans? I have never used one. Do you have recipes??

January 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLK

Dear Melissa,
it has been a while now since I followed your advice, ordered my vanilla beans and started making vanilla extract. The exctract is doing really well, it is my beans that are in trouble. I ordered about 80 of them from one of the sources that you mention above, I stored them in a plastic bag tightly wrapped and placed themin a dark cool place, but what do you know: THEY HAVE MOULDED!!! It is just their tips that are mouldy at the moment but I have about 60 left so it is a pity. Any ideas of what I should do to save them?

April 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFoodJunkie

Foodjunkie: First of all, are you sure it's mold? High-quality vanilla beans sometimes develop small white spots that are the result of the vanillin crystallizing out. If you're sure it's mold, i.e. it's large and fluffy, this site says as long as it's confined to the outside of the bean it can just be washed off. If it's penetrated the inside, however, you should probably cut off the affected parts - or even (gulp!) throw the beans away.

Where do you store your beans? Contrary to some advice I keep mine in the fridge, and I've never had a problem with mold. I do, however, get lots of those white crystals.

April 8, 2008 | Registered Commentermelissa


You are GREAT. Thank you so much. I will make a little shrine in your honour :-)

Yes, it is what you describe as the vanillin crystalizing. Phewww...

April 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFoodJunkie

THANK YOU!!! I am new to a raw food diet... and vanilla beans seem to be a favorite ingredient in most of my un-cookbooks. I was spending scads of money of vanilla beans. Your link to the vanilla bean company has saved me! Now I can drink my yummy smoothies without an ounce of guilt!

May 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I, too accidentaly made my own vanilla extract. I happened upon a store that had mistakenly priced their vanilla beans at $1.69 a pound instead of each. Of course, I bought at least a pound. Then, I worried that they would dry out, so i put them into a quart canning jar and filled the jar with vodka. Now 5 years latter, every time I need a vanilla bean, I just pull out a booze-soaked one, split it, and enjoy. Plus, the extract is fabulous.

July 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey

Very nice article. I will have to include something like this on my vanilla web site. This is very useful information!

July 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpringinhetveld

Awesome, incredible references by the way, can't thank you enough. We are starved for good vanilla beans here in Denver, you can't believe how much they charge for anything decent.

August 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkindageeky

I love the photo. After making my own, I could never go back to store bought vanilla extract.

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPetiteKitchen

This will make a perfect gift for wifey. For a husband, doing something like this would be totally silly. But this should make a great peace offering, don't you think? I can do this. Wish me luck.

Andrew Green
Up And Coming Talent

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Green

I have legit vanilla from Mexico that my best friend's husband stashed in across the border.. It is a huge bottle similar to yours and I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get through the whole thing in my lifetime! I've had it for 3 months and used 3 tablespoons... not even making a dent. But it's LEGIT and it totally makes a difference from the imitation stuff.
-Sunny
ioLite

October 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSunny

It's Nov.1. Is it possible to have a batch ready for Christmas gifts?

You should be fine if you get started on it now. It may not be super-strong by Xmas, but when you're packaging up the gift bottles include a couple vanilla beans in each and tell people it will continue to strengthen. -m

November 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterwendy

Hi! I saw this on Pinterest and just love your vanilla extract. I am currently having a bottle in the cupboard too and just can't wait for it to be matured enough to use!

November 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeannie

Well, I saw a catalog selling something called "everlasting vanilla." It was pretty expensive, but I loved the idea. So....I started looking around online and seeing what I could find out about it. And so, here I was. Thanks for all of your wonderful words. I'm going to do it! Look out, friends and family. Guess what you're getting for Christmas! I think I'll give bottles and offer to refill them for my favorite people! Whoopee! New inspiration!

February 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGinger

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