Sunday, October 7, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is very easy to make at home by simply combining alcohol with vanilla beans and letting it sit for awhile.  Homemade vanilla extract is much more cost effective than buying vanilla extract from the store, so it can save you quite a bit of money if you make many baked goods or desserts. Homemade vanilla extract also makes a great Christmas present!

Ensuring a Strong Flavor
The FDA standard for vanilla extract calls for 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of alcohol.  That works out to 0.83 ounces of vanilla bean per cup of alcohol.  Some chefs use double or triple strength vanilla extract, which uses many more beans.

To make sure my vanilla extract has a strong enough flavor, I round up from the FDA standard and use a full one ounce of beans per cup of alcohol.  All vanilla beans are not exactly the same size (they are from a plant after all), but with the Bourbon vanilla beans I use, it works out to 6-8 vanilla beans per cup of alcohol.

Cost Comparison
When I buy vanilla extract, I usually buy organic since most others have added sugar. The organic vanilla extract is at least $10 for a 4-ounce bottle (that is $2.50/ounce). The price for my homemade vanilla extract is breaks down as:
  • 1.75 L vodka - $25 (I'm sure you could get this cheaper at one of the big-box stores)
  • 8 oz vanilla beans - $28 (roughly 50 beans, which is almost perfect for making 7 cups of extract)
  • Total: $53 for 56 ounces of extract, or $0.95/ounce
That's less than half the price of storebought vanilla extract!
Choice of Ingredients
Vanilla extract is traditionally made with vodka, and that is all I've ever used.  But some people prefer to use other alcohols, such as rum.  The FDA standard just calls for a minimum of 35% alcohol (which would be 70 proof).

There are also different types of vanilla beans.  So far, I've only used Bourbon vanilla beans, but there are also Tahitian beans (which I think are a little bit smaller than Bourbon beans). Feel free to experiment to see what flavor you prefer.

How Long Does it Take?
Once you combine the alcohol and vanilla beans, you need to let it sit for at least a few months before you start using it. Six months is even better. If you want to make some for the December holidays coming up, you'd better get started soon!

Recipe: Homemade Vanilla Extract
This recipe will make a LARGE amount of vanilla extract.  Why make a small amount when you could make a large amount and have enough to last a good long while?

Makes 7 cups of vanilla extract
  • 1.75 L vodka
  • half pound (8 ounces) of Bourbon vanilla beans
  • Two quart mason jars and one pint mason jar
  • A strainer and small brown bottles if you want to give some extract away once it is done
  1. Count out your beans.  You will need about 20-22 beans for each quart mason jar and 9-10 beans for the pint jar (depending on the size of the beans). If you are using some other type of vanilla beans besides Bourbon beans, you may want to weigh them to make sure you are using around an ounce of beans per cup of alcohol. 
  2. With a sharp paring knife, slice each bean in half lengthwise. Then use the flat side of the knife blade to scrape across each bean half. This will release the vanilla bean "caviar" onto the knife, as shown in the picture. To streamline this process, I find it works well to slice all the beans at once, then scrape the caviar out all at once.
  3. Put the vanilla "caviar" into the jar.  Then cut the scraped out seed pod in half or even in quarters so they will fit easily inside your jars and be fully submerged in the liquid.
  4. Once you have sliced and scraped all of the beans for each jar, simply pour in the appropriate amount of vodka.  For the quart jars, pour in 3 cups of vodka.  For the pint mason jar, pour in the remaining vodka (which is a little less than 1.5 cups).
  5. Put a tight lid on the jars and store them in a dark place.  Every so often, swirl the liquid around in the jars a bit.  I store my jars in a dark kitchen cabinet, and swish the liquid around whenever I get other items out of the cabinet.  If you don't want to store the jars in a dark place, make sure you use dark colored bottles, such as amber bottles.
  6. Let the bottles sit for at least 3 months; 6 months is even better!  Just remember to swirl the liquid around occasionally to get the most out of the vanilla beans.
  7. Once the beans/caviar have been steeping in the alcohol for about 3 months, you can start to use the vanilla extract. I like to leave the beans and caviar in the jar and just take the extract from the top. Or, you can strain some extract into small amber bottles and give it away as gifts.


Bonny said...

I've noticed you can buy non-alcoholic vanilla that's made with glycerin. We've made our own (with alcohol) before, but, as a family, we avoid alcohol for religious reasons. What are your thoughts on glycerin? For this purpose, is it "real food" or should it be avoided?

Sarah Smith said...

In such small dietary quantities, I don't think there is any problem with using glycerin. I'm not sure what process is used, though, for making vanilla extract with glycerin.

Anonymous said...

I made some years ago and dropped the bottle. Kitchen smelled good. Haven't replaced it since. Barb

Beth Parks said...

What is the shelf-life for homemade vanilla extract? Just concerned about making such a large batch, unless it lasts for a very long time. :) Thanks!

Jo said...

I've been making homemade since we started GAPS last year. I buy a 375ml bottle of vodka and put the whole slit vanilla pod in (2-3 in a pack). Easy peasy! Makes me feel like a domestic goddess ;)

Sarah Smith said...

It should last indefinitely since it is made with alcohol (which has a very long shelf-life).

Sara said...

Thanks for sharing! Thinking of making homemade vanilla for Christmas gifts this year & needed a good place to buy larger quantities of vanilla beans!

Lisa Wallen Logsdon said...

If you put the empty pods in a large jar of sugar (palm, sucanat, xylitol, or white sugar) it will flavor your sugar wonderfully and will last forever. Just keep adding sugar as you use it and you will always have vanilla sugar. I have been using mine for years this way!

Taryn Kae Wilson said...

Hello Sarah!
It's been a little while since I visited. I wanted to say hello! :)

Love, Taryn

Sarah Smith said...

Hey Taryn! Good to "see" you!

Sarah Smith said...

What a great idea!

Evi said...

Lisa I do this for years now with loose black tea (I like Assam in particular):)
I do not use sugar because I'm on the GAPS diet (but I do buy it for the water kefir and kombucha), but I wonder if I can do the same with honey...

Kristen said...

Is the vodka you use gluten free? I don't know alcohol at all, but I've heard there is a Gluten Free kind. Do you know what brand that would be?

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Kristen,
My understanding is that all vodka is gluten-free. You may like this article that discusses it more:

MamaWestWind said...

Hey Sarah, I was just reading this post again as I want to make some vanilla. The prices for vanilla beans have gone up considerably! Do you still make your own? Do you use less beans or same?

Sarah Smith said...

Hey Becca,
I actually had made a huge amount the last time I made vanilla extract, so I'm still working through that. But, given the current high price of vanilla beans, I would NOT think it worthwhile to make homemade vanilla extract now. :)