Homemade Vanilla Extract: Day One

Last year, I wanted to make vanilla extract for holiday gifts, but I missed out. I have heard people say, variously, that it takes two months, three months, six months — in other words, a while — for vanilla beans to steep long enough in vodka to create an extract with deep, true vanilla flavor. It was almost Christmas, so I let it go and told myself I’d get an early start next time. Unbelievably, it’s already “next time” and it’s almost too late again — but not quite.

This is another one of those projects (like yogurt or fruit leather) that lends itself to many variations of technique and timing. There are a lot of tutorials out there, and I’m posting my own notes mostly so I can keep track of the way I decided to do it — and to share a few sources in case they help you.

I began with a recipe at TableFare, which calls for 6 vanilla beans for each 1 1/2 cups of vodka. But then I got a lot of great advice from friends on the H2H facebook page, too. Phoebe said 8 beans for each cup of vodka is better. Jyll shared her source for quality, affordable beans. I had a lot of tips to choose from. (Be sure to read the comments below for even more of those great tips.) Here’s what I decided to do:

1. I ordered 1/2 pound of organic vanilla beans from Saffron.com for $31.99. [Update: Two years later, in 2013, the same quantity costs $39.95.] That’s about 75 beans! Plus they throw in 5 extra beans as a gift. Shipping was fast. The company is in San Francisco, so the beans were on my porch the day after I ordered them.

2. I poured myself a quart jar of Stoli. (Actually, I used a 750ml bottle, which turns out to be just shy of a quart.)

3. I counted out 32 vanilla beans, nipped off the ends, split the beans lengthwise, and added them to the vodka. (It may have been goofy of me to snip the ends, but otherwise the beans wouldn’t have been fully submerged in the alcohol. I could have just mushed them down, or cut them horizontally, but instead I made a separate plan for the end pieces, which I mention below.)

4. I put the lid on the jar, labeled the lid with the date and what’s in there, and put the whole deal into the pantry to steep. I’ll shake it up every now and then and we’ll see how it goes. In a couple of months, I’ll taste and report back with the results. (You can pop over to the 70-day update by clicking here.)

I hope I can find more of these sweet Bormioli swing-top bottles to present the extract come December. Last holiday season, I saw the small ones — they hold about 4 ounces –  at both Sur La Table and The Container Store, but I haven’t yet had luck finding them online.

So what about the nipped off ends of those beans? I tossed them into a 4-ounce jar and covered them with Grand Marnier. It seemed like the thing to do, though I have no idea what the results will be. I have five pounds of summer-picked figs in my freezer that are starting to haunt me, and I recently tasted a lovely figgy jam that contained plenty of vanilla and booze. I thought an infusion of drunken bean butts (sorry) or a splash of the liqueur might be just the thing to add to my fig jam when I get around to it. Before next year, for sure.

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33 comments to Homemade Vanilla Extract: Day One

  • This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing as Vanilla is a staple in our household!

  • Deb

    oooooh, seems a reasonable and flavorable experiment. I can smell the vanilla from here! Shae, I had the chance to buy a book today called Preserve It (UK, I think) that has several pages dedicated fruit/veg cold/dry storage.

    • Shae

      Deb, I’ll have to check out that book. My quince aren’t coming along very well. More a problem of when they were picked than how they are stored. We’ll talk!

  • I definitely let mine steep a couple months. Those little bottles are adorable….I reused nip bottles of Absolut for my gifting extract but now I may have to try and find those or something similar.

    I do use both vodka and rum for my extract. Normally whatever has a rebate and is minimally decent.

    • Shae

      The Stoli was on sale for a great price. I also like the tip about the Brita filter that’s floating through these comments. I’m curious what the vanilla would be like in a light rum.

  • yazzy

    Did you read the tip about purchasing cheap vodka and then filtering it through a Brita four times? (It was also suggested to hold back a nip for a before and after tasting) Apparently you will be amazed. This turns it into an “expensive” vodka.Who knew? Kewl (vanilla) beanz eh? ;)

  • Jennifer

    How great would it be to bake with my own home-made vanilla. I better get ordering those beans!

  • I’ve had a bunch of beans sitting in Kraken rum for ages now; mostly it still tastes like Kraken. Vanilla-y Kraken, of course, but… Kraken. So either my beans were old & stale, or I didn’t use enough, or Kraken is simply too full-flavored. But maybe I will give it a try with some vodka. And that Brita tip is too cool! I might have to try that.

    I get swingtop bottles from specialtybottle.com but you’re right:they don’t have the little 4-oz ones. Smallest are the 7-oz square (in which I gift homemade cordials). I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the wee ones.

  • Interesting tip on filtering the vodka. I’ve also thought about trying a 3:1 vodka/bourbon ratio for sort of a true bourbon vanilla. If I want it for Christmas I guess I better get started!

    • Shae

      I’m curious about mixing the liquors, Dawn. You are always intrepid! I have decided that I am not much of a bourbon fan, but maybe if it wasn’t full-on bourbon, I would like it. Let us know if you try it?

  • We made this last year but didn’t use nearly enough vanilla beans. Definitely think you are on the right track adding more…the more the merrier. We also put two more beans in when we bottled the individual jars. We bake with it all the time!

  • meg

    Thanks for reminding me to do this! And what a great deal on the vanilla. Sunburst bottle company has some nice, tiny bottles. I’ve ordered from them several times.

  • YOu could also bury those bean ‘butts’ in sugar and leave them sit a while to make a lovely vanilla sugar!

    • Shae

      Yes, thank you! Actually, I still have 40 some-odd beans from my big order, so vanilla sugar should be next on my list, don’t you think?

  • I’ll second Kaela’s Specialty Bottle recommendation and Meg’s Sunburst bottle recommendation too.

  • Jyll

    Meg and Kate – glad to hear two of you recommend Sunburst. Far and away they have the best prices on bottles I’ve found but I’ve been hesitant to order until now. And thanks for the shout-out, Shae! I’m so glad you were pleased with the Vanilla Saffron folks, too.

  • michelle in colroado

    You can also add the tips of the vanilla to sugar for vanilla sugar.

  • Marsha

    Specialty Bottle Company has some great bottles-they have a 4 oz. Boston Round…and they have a link to a fantastic label company where you can design your own labels..look on the lower right side in the Martha Stewart mention about gift ideas….

  • I’m glad you’re doing this. I keep MEANING too, but…you know. I did actually start it once but that bottle is long gone. Your kitchen must have smelled so wonderful as you put this all together!

  • I got round to starting my vanilla ‘plant’ last year about this time. After anxious research, how many pods to alcohol, which alcohol etc?, once begun any such angst was long forgotten. Whenever I have a used vanilla bean I stuff it in the jar with the others and every now and again, when I refill a smaller bottle with the extract for the ingredients cupboard, I simply top up the jar with more liquor. This may just keep me in vanilla extract for life. Very satisfying.

    • Shae

      Gloria, it is satisfying, isn’t it? Now that my extract has reached the point where it is actually useful, I wonder why everyone doesn’t make it this way!

  • Finally got my beans and have the brew going ///thanx so much I posted the recipe on my blog and truly appreciate your help

  • Anne

    After day one, you let it steep like for two months or more? Then just fill in bottles? Do you put a vanilla bean in the gift jars? I need a bit more direction on this if you can.

    • Shae

      Hi Anne:

      Those are good questions! It’s the first time I’ve done this, so I’m taking guidance from others and making it up as I go, but here’s a little more about my experience so far. I’m finding that, after two months, the vanilla seems good enough to give as gifts, but I’m sure it will continue to be enriched as it steeps. I have started straining it and filling bottles for gifts as I need them, and yes, I am snipping 2″-3″ of bean to include in each jar (size depending on the size of the jar — whatever comfortably fits).

      Also, I took Phoebe’s suggestion, above, and did a batch with silver rum, too. I like both, but I think I agree with her that the silver rum is preferable. The depth of flavor is really nice.

      I hope to do a second post about the project, so this is a preview!

  • Val

    This is my first time making vanilla. It’s been about 4 weeks and looks and smells incredible so far. I was able to get the most amazing little bottles from our local drug store! They sold me eight little ear drop bottles ( unused of course). They are brown glass, 20ml, have little droppers. Plus they only charged me $1 per bottle.

  • Shae

    Hello peoples! I’ve just posted an update to this project. You can find it here.

  • [...] means you find all the best things out after everyone else! Rewind to this time last year, I saw this post and what a revelation it was to me! I had no idea you could make your own vanilla [...]

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