When I was growing up in the 70’s, there was one ubiquitous baking ingredient that was always in our kitchen cabinet - vanilla extract. I didn’t think that much about this solitary ingredient, a teaspoon or two of which was added to practically every dessert.
Once I was out on my own, I delved into the world of cooking with enthusiasm. This was also around the time when cooking shows really started to take off…and I began to hear about the wonders of real vanilla extract. All of a sudden, I realized the importance of that one word descriptor that was on the bottle of extract in my mom’s cabinet – “Artificial”.
Of course, I needed to find out what all the fuss was about so on my next trip to the grocery store, I searched the baking aisle….and there it was. A small bottle of the real stuff, aka “pure vanilla extract”, stood beside a large bottle of the artificial. I had to do a double take on the price, though – for a minute I thought they had placed the bottles in the wrong spots as the real extract in its teeny tiny bottle (probably one quarter the size of the artificial) was twice as expensive. Say what? I read the details on the shelf labels and they were indeed correct.
Once I brought it home and opened the bottle, however, I got it. I didn’t even need to use the extract in a recipe to experience the difference. The scent was incredible and oh so different from the chemically smell of the artificial – a true night and day difference.
My philosophy is that homemade is always best so it didn’t take long before I ventured into making my own vanilla extract. And another ‘wow’ moment ensued. Everyone that smells my vanilla “homebrew” is floored….it’s just so incredible!
And the best part? It’s beyond easy. You only need two ingredients, zero special equipment (you don’t even need to purchase a bottle!) and it takes about 2 minutes to make. Literally. No, I’m not kidding. The hardest part about making vanilla extract is the wait as it does need to “steep” for a few weeks.
How to Make Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract is a two ingredient recipe. The shopping list? Vanilla beans and vodka. That’s it. Some people use rum but I feel that vodka has a cleaner taste. If you are a rum fan, however, you can give that a go too. The great thing about creating your own is that you can customize it to your own tastes and preferences.
When I created my first batch of extract, instead of using the vodka that I already had at home, I perused the liquor store shelves and purchased a small bottle of a popular brand. Truth be told, I’m not a drinker so any brand was fine by me and my choice was governed more by the bottle – its esthetic appeal and suitability to hold vanilla extract - than anything else.
Since vanilla extract is used in teaspoon portions, you don’t need a large bottle taking up space in your kitchen cabinet. For me, a small bottle around 250ml/8oz in size works well. The one thing that I would insist on when it comes to the bottle, however, is that it be glass rather than plastic, as the latter does degrade over time.
After the initial purchase which provides me with both the alcohol and a vanilla extract bottle, I buy standard size bottles of vodka (which, ounce for ounce, is much cheaper) and refill the smaller bottles.
The Vanilla Beans
Although vanilla beans are not usually sold at regular grocery stores, in my area anyhow, they are readily available at specialty grocery stores, bulk food stores and Costco (which is where I get them). As with practically everything else these days, you can also now get them online.
Before you go looking online and gasp at the fact that one bean will set you back $7, let me just say this: A little goes a long way and you only need 2-3 beans (depending on the size of your bottle) to create a swoon-worthy vanilla extract.
My only criteria when it comes to buying vanilla beans is that they are fresh (i.e. moist and pliable). Beans from certain regions (such as Madagascar) are touted as being the “best”, but trust me - your vanilla extract will still be far and away superior to the ready-made grocery store version even if you don’t use the Grey Poupon of vanilla beans.
Vanilla Extract Recipe
What you need:
- One small bottle of vodka (250–400ml/8-13 oz works well)
- 1 vanilla bean for each 150ml of vodka
What you do:
Run the tip of a sharp knife down the length of each vanilla bean to cut it in half.
Plop the beans into the bottle of vodka. Tighten the cap, shake-shake-shake a few times, then place in a cool, dark place - I simply place it in my kitchen cabinet.
Over the next 4 weeks, shake the bottle a few times per week. Keeping your “brew” in a spot where you will see it every once in a while will remind you to shake. Whenever I open the kitchen cabinet to get something out, for instance, I notice the bottle & give it a couple of shakes. Even if you don’t shake the bottle and just leave it to sit for the next few weeks, those vanilla beans will still infuse the vodka.
Once I realized how incredible homemade vanilla extract was, I ran out and purchased another small bottle of vodka so that I could always have a bottle steeping and ready to go. As soon as I finish a bottle, I’ll switch it out with a full bottle that I have waiting in the wings and refill the empty one to start a new batch. Vanilla extract will last forever - or just about - so you don’t have to worry about it going bad. In fact, the longer it sits, the better it gets.
Once you’ve made your own vanilla extract, you’ll wonder why on earth you didn’t try it sooner. You’ll also be reaching for your bottle when friends come over and asking them to breathe in that oh-so-heady aroma…at which point they will undoubtedly ask you to pass on your homemade vanilla extract making wisdom.