Vanilla is one of the most humble and unsung of flavors. Simple, yet subtly refined, vanilla adds depth of flavor and warm, almost heady aroma to baked goods. I love vanilla. It certainly doesn’t get as much praise as its darker-complected rival, chocolate; but where chocolate dominates, vanilla supports. I can add a teaspoon of vanilla extract to just about anything, and it will only enhance what flavors are there to take the forefront.
Vanilla extract is a solution that contains the flavor compounds found in the vanilla bean, specifically called vanillin. Pure vanilla extract is made by macerating or percolating the vanilla beans in a solution of alcohol and water. Vanilla flavoring is made from vanilla beans with little to no alcohol, whereas (and I shudder) imitation vanilla extract is made from soaking alcohol into wood which contains vanillin, and the liquid then undergoes further chemical treatment so that it mimics the flavor of vanilla. As I am not a fan of anything chemically treated, especially when it comes to food, let’s forget about the imitation garbage stuff, and return our attention to pure vanilla goodness.
Good (and by good I mean high-quality) vanilla extract is in my opinon a true kitchen essential, one that is so incredibly easy to make you truly can do it blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back. Kitchen savvy is not required. 😉
You do need premium grade vanilla beans to get a premium grade product. As my chef-instructors in culinary school said, over and over and over again, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Many times the vanilla beans found packaged at grocery stores are dried up and old; they aren’t useless by any means, but do keep in mind that they will yield an extract of lesser quality than a fresh vanilla bean.
I have read on Wikipedia and other websites that there are four cultivated varieties of vanilla bean: Mexican, West Indian, Tahitian, and Bourbon. There are also Madagascar beans, Tonga beans, and some from India as well. They each have nuances of aroma and flavor that are as subtle and complex as different varieties of chocolate or coffee. Is there a best vanilla bean variety? I don’t think so, but there are some varieties, like Tahitian, which contain more oil, and therefore would result in a stronger flavored extract. As with coffee, chocolate, or booze: use what suits your taste, and don’t be afraid to try more than one variety. A really great source for information about the varieties of (and for purchasing) vanilla beans is Beanilla.com. Amazon is another good online source.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
- 1 cup vodka or brandy (I used vodka, as was what I had on hand, but am itching to try brandy the next time around, as it is a bit more primal-friendly.) The alcohol used here does not need to be of any great quality; I use the cheapest I can find!
- 3 vanilla beans
- quart-sized glass jar with lid (or other lidded container of choice. I personally prefer and recommend glass.)
- Make certain your glass container is CLEAN.
- Cut the vanilla beans lengthwise with scissors or a very sharp paring knife, leaving the last inch intact.
- Pour the alcohol into the container of choice.
- Place the cut vanilla beans into the alcohol and push them down until they are completely covered.
- Lid and seal the vanilla extract, give it a good shake, and let it sit in a cool, dark place.
- Leave it alone/Forget about it for at least 8 weeks. Alternatively, when you do think about it, give the jar a good shake, but make sure that once it settles, the vanilla beans are still submerged in the alcohol.
The potency of the vanilla extract is contingent on how long you let it macerate. The longer it sits, the stronger it will become. After eight weeks the extract is a lovely amber color, as you can see in the picture below.
Strain the extract into another jar or bottle, and there you have it! I saved a few of the commercial vanilla extract bottles from the days when I still bought the stuff, as they wash and reuse very well. Also, at this point you can add a teaspoon of simple syrup to your extract to sweeten the aftertaste, or the same amount of dark rum works as well.
Now for the really good news: don’t throw those luscious vanilla beans away! Just pour another cup of vodka or brandy over them, seal the jar, and the whole process starts once more. You will never need to buy vanilla extract again! Your vanilla beans may need replacing once or twice a year, depending on their virility; they do get old and soggy.
So there you have it! Easy & inexpensive, homemade vanilla extract is a rewarding and fun addition to anyone’s cooking repertoire. Happy Cooking!