As many bakers will know, vanilla has been creeping up in price and, since it’s a key flavoring in many baked goods, it’s hard to do without it. I recently priced a 120ml bottle of pure vanilla (storebrand) here in Charlottetown and it was $17.49 at time of writing. Yikes! 120ml is not quite one-half cup and there aren’t a lot of teaspoons in a half cup. I make my own vanilla which is actually quite easy and only takes two ingredients — vanilla beans and vodka. The vanilla extract is made using whole vanilla beans that steep for several weeks, or months, in at least 35% alcohol or more.
What homemade vanilla does take is time. It takes at least one to two months for the flavour to steep from the vanilla beans placed in the vodka so you do need to plan ahead for your vanilla needs. Vanilla beans are not cheap either but, for the amount of vanilla that can be made I find, for me at least, it is the more economical way to go.
There are different varieties and grades of vanilla beans. I use the Madagascar Bourbon variety. Grade B beans, with their low moisture content, are generally considered the more suitable for extraction purposes. What beans you use, however, will largely depend on what is available in your area. Vanilla beans are usually found in the baking aisles of most large supermarkets or you can often find them at bulk and health food stores.
I use three split standard-sized vanilla beans per cup of vodka, four if the beans are somewhat smaller. More beans can be used to speed up the steeping process but, if you can wait, it’s more economical to go with fewer beans and steep them longer. Vodka is the preferred medium to use for the vanilla because it is considered to be a neutral agent with no defined strong flavour on its own. Some do use bourbon, rum, or brandy for the vanilla but, in my view, that is altering the true vanilla flavour and introducing another flavour altogether.
There is no need to buy a top-brand pricey vodka for the making of vanilla. I use a moderately priced vodka with 40% alc./vol.
To prepare the vanilla beans, use the flat back side of a pare knife and smooth out the vanilla beans, lengthwise.
Then, with the tip of a sharp knife, slice the vanilla beans open, lengthwise, to reveal the vanilla seeds.
At this point, you can scrape the vanilla seeds out and transfer them to the decanting bottle along with the vanilla pods or you can just leave the seeds in the pods.
The seeds will come out of the pods anyway as the bottle is shaken and the seeds and pods steep. Place the vanilla bean pods and seeds in a sterilized bottle or jar. Add the vodka, ensuring the vanilla bean pods are submerged. You may cut the vanilla beans if they are taller than the amount of vodka in the bottle.
Cover tightly and shake the bottle well. Store in cool dark place for at least one month (and preferably two months or even longer). Shake the bottle once or twice a week during the steeping/ extraction process.
Apart from making vanilla for your own use, homemade vanilla makes a wonderful gift for the foodie on your gift list so the vanilla beans can be divided between the smaller sterilized gift-size bottles for the entire extraction/steeping process or the vanilla can be steeped in one large bottle and then later poured into smaller sterilized bottles, usually either 4oz or 8oz size. I usually make the vanilla in a large bottle because it does need to be shaken once or twice a week as it steeps and I find it easier to deal with one bottle than several.
Some don’t care for the specks of vanilla seeds left in the bottle so, if a clear, speck-free, vanilla is desired, filter it through a small k-cup coffee filter like the one shown in the funnel below.
I do recommend keeping the vanilla bean pods in the bottle(s) even after the 1-2 month steeping period has ended because those beans continue to impart flavour and deeper color to the vanilla. I personally like to leave the seeds in the vanilla for the same reason. I also think the seeds make it more interesting and authentic looking If, in future, you have any vanilla bean pods left after you have used the seeds for other purposes, add those pods to the vanilla you have on hand. Additional vodka can be added to the bottle, as well, as the vanilla is used up. Continue to store the vanilla in a dark place at room temperature.
Making homemade vanilla extract is simple and easy to do. It also has the added benefit of allowing you to choose the quality of vanilla you want to make based on the kind and grade of vanilla beans you use. There are a lot of vanillas, and simulated vanillas, on the market but making your own allows you to control the quality and, depending on how much you use, it may be the more economical option. Plus, you will have the thrill of making your own vanilla and impressing those you choose to gift it to as well.