Aug 12 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract. 118 Cheesecakes Worth.

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I’m rarely accused of doing something half-assed.  A “go for the gusto” kind of guy, I’m more likely to leap excitedly overboard than dip my toes.

My experiment in making homemade vanilla extract was no exception.

With a lively spirit of generosity (Hey! I should give homemade vanilla to my foodie friends for christmas!), I bought 2 liters of vodka. I also got a good deal on a big bag of lovely Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla beans from  (affiliate link). This was October, and my intention was to brew the stuff and distribute in the coming weeks.

Turns out, making a good batch of homemade vanilla extract requires a few months of steeping (though I’ve discovered some shortcuts – more on that later). So now, 9 months later, I’ve got enough rich, fragrant, homemade vanilla to make myself 118 cheesecakes.

Drop by if you’re hungry.

A Sultry and Superior Product

My guess is that the difference between homemade and store bought comes down to chemicals.  A lot of store bought vanilla extract is made with a synthetic version of vanillin (the compound that makes vanilla taste like vanilla). If you’ve ever opened up a bottle of the store bought stuff and noticed it smells a lot like robitussin, you might come to the same conclusion. Homemade vanilla smells different – it’s luscious, almost creamy.

It’s also vastly cheaper. For pure vanilla extract, my local grocery store charges $2.20 / ounce. Mine cost $0.83 / ounce, and I could have done it cheaper by using fewer beans (Mr. Overboard has a little trouble with portion control ;-) .

The flavor is strong, round and gorgeous. I’ve been drizzling into my iced coffee during the hot summer months, and what a beautiful lift it gives.

How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract

This is just about the simplest “recipe” you’ll ever use. There are two ingredients, no cooking (unless you want to speed things up), and no prep.

First, buy yourself a bottle of cheap vodka. There’s really no reason to go premium – Crystal Palace tastes just as good as Grey Goose in a batch of cookies. Pour about 1/4 cup of vodka out of the bottle and set it aside, or make yourself a few cocktails to sip while you prep ;-)

Then, using a pair of kitchen shears or a pairing knife, split 12-15 vanilla beans down the middle, and drop into the vodka.  Put the cap back on, shake well, and set aside for 3-4 months, shaking agressively a couple times a week.

A Shortcut to Awesome

I haven’t tried this myself, but it’s rumored that cook’s illustrated took on the challenge of homemade vanilla extract and found that by heating the vodka and beans mixture you can vastly shrink the time it takes to bring your extract to full flavor. It certainly makes sense, and if Cooks Illustrated says it works, I’m pretty inclined to believe it.

If you go this route, I’d just be careful not to get the vodka too hot. You probably don’t want to boil or even simmer the liquid. I’d think about it more like a poach. I’d estimate that heating for 5-10 minutes with a couple good stirs would do the trick.

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With this method, you’ll probably have great stuff in a week or two.

Other Ideas

  • Use other spirits. Vodka will give you the purest vanilla flavor, but bourbon, scotch or rum would probably create interesting and tasty results. Gin would probably be gross.
  • If you don’t want to go as far overboard as me, you could buy mini bottles of booze and just stuff 1 split bean into each.
  • If you have leftover vanilla beans, make sure to wrap them very tightly in a plastic ziploc bag. You could also split a pod and put it in a mason jar  with granulated sugar for a super tasty treat.
  • Split and chop a pod into medium sized chunks and add to a tin of black tea
  • Add your vanilla extract to homemade bbq sauce. It goes great with flavors like bourbon, soy sauce, and brown sugar. I make a sauce like this and slather it on skirt steak. Recipe to come (someday)
  • Drip a little into iced coffee
  • Add to coke or pepsi for an awesome twist
  • Mix with simple syrup and seltzer to make your own cream soda

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