A Baker’s Lesson in Potion Making: Vanilla Extract

During my years in college when I was baking constantly, I noticed I was rapidly using my vanilla extract supply. And when your weekly food budget could quickly become decimated by having to buy a new bottle, I once broke down and bought the wretched monstrosity known as Iminitation Vanilla Extract, which has about as much in common with the real thing as a handful of purple Gobstoppers does with a handful of grapes. So I finally reached the point where I said enough is enough and figured there must be a better way to get vanilla extract than paying far too much at the local grocery store and there is: make it yourself.

In a lot of ways, vanilla extract is a lot like salt. It can transform foods completely, but by itself it is disgusting. But if you omit it from the recipe, the results are often bland and one-note. Vanilla makes certain foods taste better, it’s that simple. And if you’re a baker, you will need an ample supply of it on hand at all times.

Over the last few years though, there has been a major push of doing it yourself that I can certainly get behind. But many companies are looking for ways to exploit this by marketing things like a make your own vanilla extract kit which are a joke. Some of them are nothing more than a few vanilla beans, a bottle and instructions that basically say “add some vodka and wait.” But here is the really crazy thing, vanilla beans aren’t that expensive and for $20 you can make enough vanilla extract to last you years. All you need is some vodka, vanilla beans and time.

The US FDA states that vanilla extract must be  a minimum of 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon. That isn’t too hard to do in your own kitchen. Plus, it will finally give you something to do with that cheap vodka you bought years ago.

Vanilla Extract
Makes around 1.75 liters

Ingredients
1.75 of vodka
25-30 vanilla beans
Time

Equipment
A large bottle
Cutting board
Knife or scissors
A cool, dark place

Directions

Remove around a cup of the vodka from the handle and set aside. You won’t be using it, but you can easily make some delicious vodka sauce or Jell-O shots with it (pro tip: you can freeze Jell-O shots in a pinch to let them set much, much quicker. The alcohol prevents them from freezing solid). Remove the spout from the bottle and set aside.

Cut each vanilla bean in half length-wise. Once all of them are divided, add them into the bottle. Pour the remaining vodka over the beans to make sure they are fully covered. Replace the spout cover and seal the bottle and set it aside in a cool, dark place for at least four weeks but the flavor gets better the longer it sits. During this time, agitate the extract every few days by shaking the bottle.  Once the extract has become dark, you can then filter it using a fine mesh strainer or coffee filter. I personally don’t because I like getting the flecks of vanilla specs in my recipes.

Now, you’re probably wondering why bourbon was never added to the recipe and that is because when vanilla extract refers to bourbon, it is referring to the island of Réunion, which was once ruled by the Bourbon Kings of France and is one of the two largest producers of vanilla beans in the world alongside Madagascar.

With there being multiple kinds of beans to use, it is always a question of what kind to get. The beans from Madagascar and Réunion are the same kind of bean, commonly referred to as bourbon beans and are the universal standard for vanilla. Thahitian vanilla isn’t nearly as flavorful and is often used in perfumes, so avoid that. The last kind of beans are Mexican vanilla beans which I tend to avoid since many Mexican vanilla extracts contain coumarin which has been linked to kidney and liver damage. So stick with the bourbon beans!

This whole project is amazingly cheap too since a quarter pound of vanilla beans can be acquired for under $20 online. Toss in a cheap handle of vodka for another $10-15, and you’ve got essentially a life-time supply of vanilla extract for $30! Plus, this makes a great gift since very few people ever expect to get a bottle of homemade vanilla extract.