Making Vanilla Extract - It's Nice, Nice, Baby!
Anyone who bakes (me included) knows how critical vanilla extract is to many recipes. Who can resist that wonderful vanilla aroma, or the subtle flavor it brings to so many cakes, cookies and scones?
According to The Spice House, vanilla beans are expensive because of the time and effort involved in growing and drying the beans. It takes at least 3 years for the plant to mature, and it’s very labor-intensive to cultivate as the vanilla flower must be hand-pollinated. Plus, it takes over 600 vanilla blossoms to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beans. Also, Madagascar, which produces about 80% of the vanilla bean crop was hit by a powerful cyclone in 2017 which destroyed abut 30% of the crop. All of these factors have driven up the price in the past few years.
The high price of natural vanilla beans has created a market for synthetic alternatives. Most of the time when you are eating vanilla-flavored food, or if the vanilla extract is cheap, you will be consuming artificial vanilla. This is made from a synthetic flavor version vanillin (the flavor that occurs naturally in vanilla beans) and it accounts for about 95% of the vanilla flavoring used today.
If you think that the little specks of vanilla in a product means that it is natural vanilla extract – think again! Manufacturers often buy “spent vanilla specks” which are made from dried, ground, used beans and add them as a “visual enhancement” to their food.
So faced with the reality of high prices and a lot of artificial extract out there, it seemed like a good idea to test whether making my own vanilla extract was worth it.
What you need
All you need is 2 simple ingredients:
- 2 large or 3 medium vanilla beans
- 1 cup of vodka – this does not have to be a fancy brand, and it should definitely not be a flavored vodka.
Plus you'll need a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.
What to do
- Slice open the vanilla beans to expose the seeds.
- Add the vanilla beans to the jar.
- Pour the vodka into the jar, over the beans.
- Seal the jar and shake it a few times.
- Place the jar in a cool, dark place.
- Once or twice a week, shake the jar and replace it in the cool dark place.
- After about 8 weeks the extract should be a nice dark brown color and ready to use.
Also, you can keep “topping up” the extract as you use it:
- Once you’ve used about 20% of the extract you can add more vodka to it.
- Also, if you have any vanilla beans left over from other recipes you can add the used pod to the extract too. Just remember to rinse and dry it before adding it to the existing extract.
How much time?
Cutting open the beans and then adding them and the vodka to the jar takes about 5 minutes.
However, you do have to wait at least 8 weeks before the vanilla extract is ready to use.
I made 1 cup of vanilla extract for a cost of $8.87. About 75% of this cost was the vanilla beans since I did not need to buy expensive, name-brand vodka.
If I were to buy the same amount of vanilla extract from the store it would cost me $34. So making it myself is a 74% saving!
Is it worth it?
As long as you can wait the 8 weeks, this is totally worth doing: a definite 5-pig rating! By making it myself I saved a ton of money, plus I know that it is pure vanilla extract.
Don’t forget that you can “top up” the extract with additional vodka and beans so you will continue to save money.
Anything else I should know?
If you’re tempted to make your own vanilla extract and then sell it, be aware that it is the only flavoring in the US that is regulated by the FDA.
I use a lot of vanilla extract because I bake regularly - even this Lemon Zucchini bread uses vanilla extract. What are your favorite ways to use vanilla?