Homemade vanilla extract takes just two ingredients — vanilla beans and alcohol — and you can be as straightforward or creative as you like. Though it does take a bit of patience as you wait for the alcohol to extract the flavor from the beans, the delicious results are well worth it.
What Vanilla Beans to Use?
You can use any vanilla beans, bearing in mind that different varieties and grades will have unique properties.
Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla has the classic, robust flavor that one typically associates with vanilla. Tahitian vanilla is subtly fruity and floral, while Mexican vanilla tends to be smooth and spicy. Create a single origin vanilla extract or invent your own blend — it's up to you!
Although Grade A or gourmet/prime vanilla beans are superior for cooking, in this case Grade B or extract grade vanilla beans are ideal because they have a lower moisture content. Feel free to use whatever you have, though.
A note on pricing and sourcing: Vanilla beans can get expensive. While it's possible to find inexpensive vanilla beans in bulk from places like eBay, I also like to buy Fair Trade vanilla whenever possible. Mountain Rose Herbs is a good source for organic and Fair Trade vanilla beans.
What Alcohol to Use?
Vodka has the most neutral flavor, but you can also use bourbon, brandy, or rum to create unique extracts.
There's no need to use a top-shelf or high-proof alcohol when making vanilla extract. An inexpensive 40% (80 proof) alcohol will work just fine. (Commercial vanilla extracts are typically 35% or 70 proof alcohol.) I prefer using a mid-tier alcohol, not bottom of the barrel but not too expensive, either.
How Long to Infuse?
Let the vanilla beans infuse for at least one month and even a couple of months for a stronger flavor. You can also use more beans to speed up the process. If giving this as a gift before the infusion is complete, tell your recipient to let it mature for a number of weeks. Vanilla extract is kind of like wine in that the flavor will become more complex over time.
Sources for Vanilla Beans and Bottling Supplies
Homemade Vanilla Extract
What You Need
3 to 5 vanilla beans
8 ounces alcohol such as vodka, bourbon, brandy, or rum
→ General Rule of Thumb: Use 3 to 5 vanilla beans per 8 ounces of alcohol and multiply accordingly if making more extract.
Cutting board and knife
Clean jar or bottle
New bottle(s) for packaging (optional)
Small funnel (optional)
Coffee filter (optional)
Split the vanilla beans: Split each vanilla bean in half lengthwise. If you like, you can leave an inch connected at the end of the bean for an attractive presentation. You can also chop the beans into smaller pieces if necessary to fit in your jar or bottle.
Place the vanilla beans in a jar and cover with alcohol: Place the vanilla beans in a clean jar or bottle. Cover them with alcohol, making sure they are completely submerged. Cover the jar or bottle and give it a good shake.
Infuse for at least one month: Store the jar or bottle of vanilla beans in a cool, dark place for at least one month, shaking it from time to time. Taste the extract and let it infuse longer if you want a stronger flavor.
Strain it if you like: You may wish to remove the vanilla pods and decant the extract into a pretty bottle. The little flecks of seeds can be a nice touch, but if you want a clear extract you can strain them out using a coffee filter.
Or leave the pods in the extract: You can also leave the beans in the alcohol and top off the bottle as you use the extract. Eventually all the flavor will be extracted from the original vanilla beans, so you can periodically add fresh beans as well as leftover pods that you've scraped for other recipes.
→ Uses for spent pods. You can also make good use of the spent vanilla pods by drying them and then making vanilla sugar or flavored salt.
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(Image credits: Emily Han)