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Vanilla Extract

Posted by Reese on 2010-10-21 @ 09:31pm

Vanilla extract is one of those ingredients that we all have sitting in our cupboards and, I would venture to guess, most of us don’t know the first thing about it.  I certainly didn’t.  That is, until I started learning digging in to the facts about vanilla a year or so back.  But let me back up a bit.

As a kid I was always into cooking and baking.  In my travels, well, more correctly stated, sedentary TV watching, I remember watching a ton of TV Food Network (what is now simply Food Network) one summer.  I watched anything and everything that came on.  During one of the programs I remember a brief discussion about the vanilla that was being put into the recipe and how one should use pure vanilla extract rather than vanilla flavoring.  The latter having been derived from wood rather than actual vanilla beans.  So, being a curious kid, I checked our cupboard and lucked out, we already had pure vanilla extract.

Though I was a changed lad.  From that point on, whenever I needed vanilla, I was always careful to buy the good stuff and that’s where the story gets boring.  At least until last year.  Sometime last year I read a blog post on making your own vanilla extract.  Sadly I can’t remember where I saw it, but it got me thinking.  I had a few vanilla beans at home that needed application and I knew I could get some more good ones from my local spice shop.  On top of that, the process was easy enough; combine your alcohol of choice with some sliced vanilla beans, shake and wait.  No problems at all.

That is, until I went to Savory to get those additional beans and was a bit startled by what Dan told me.  He said that commercial vanilla extracts use about 140 beans per gallon of alcohol.  I was floored.  In reading the wikipedia article, and subsequently the FDA site, about vanilla extract Iwas able to confirm what he had said.  Specifically, per the US FDA, vanilla extract must contain at least 35% ABV and no less than 13.35oz of vanilla beans per gallon.  Which works out to ~8-9 beans per cup.  It started making more sense why vanilla extract is so expensive at the store.  Despite my shock, I wasn’t deterred and  here’s the recipe I ended up using.

Homemade Vanilla Extract
8 Vanilla Beans
1 cup Gold Rum
1) Slice the beans lengthwise to expose the seeds inside
2) Cut the resulting long slices into 2-3" bits
3) Combine the vanilla beans and rum in a glass container
4) Shake weekly for 8 weeks

Dirt simple and, if you buy your beans in bulk from an internet source or local spice shop, not all that expensive.  Plus you get some serious benefits that you don’t from the commercial products.  First, you know exactly what’s going into the final product.  Second, you can choose the type of vanilla bean you like.  If you’re unsure, go with bourbon vanilla beans.  Third, you get to choose the spirit you like.  I go with rum because I think it has a very complimentary flavor and the sugary notes really go well with the vanilla.  However, you could just as easily go with vodka for a more pure vanilla flavor or whiskey if you want to mix things up a bit.  Fourth, you get little vanilla seeds with the extract.  True, this won’t be a plus for everyone, but I like it.  I think it makes things more natural.

A couple final notes before I let you go.  When you start to deplete your extract supply simply top up the jar with alcohol and add an appropriate number of fresh beans.  You can pull out the old beans if you need the room.  Please don’t dump the vanilla hulls if/when you pull the out of the jar.  Dry them and put them in with sugar to make flavored vanilla sugar.  Mmmm…vanilla sugar topped creme brulee.

So, there you have it, my vanilla extract journey.  I’m certain I’ll be making homemade going forward.  It’s really good and I love being able to make my ingredients at home.