Homemade vanilla extract is one of those back-pocket tricks of home cooks. Whole vanilla beans transform plain alcohol into floral, sweet, soothing vanilla flavoring without much work involved and at a fraction of the cost of premium store-bought extracts.
When you make vanilla extract for the first time, you'll probably just grab a few vanilla beans and an inexpensive bottle of vodka from the grocery store, but after you've baked with that first batch, you'll know that even the tiniest investment in time, method, or ingredients will make a better batch. Here are my five favorite tips for making even better vanilla extract at home.
1. Use Grade B vanilla beans.
Don't bother with the plump vanilla beans at the specialty shop or even the grocery store. Instead buy Grade B vanilla beans in bulk from an online resource. I use VanillaProductsUSA on eBay annually, but Beanilla and Nuts.com products are well-loved too. Grade B vanilla beans are actually rated for extract because they are sometimes smaller and dried, but you can get more for your dollar and up your bean count from one to two beans a bottle to more, making a richer extract.
2. Split or chop the vanilla beans.
We're all kind of programmed to think a single vanilla bean in a jar of extract equates to premium quality, but splitting the bean in half or even chopping the bean into 1-inch pieces extracts faster. It also frees up all those vanilla beans inside the bean to escape and float freely in the extract.
3. Switch out the cheap vodka.
Here's a simple rule: Don't make extract with alcohol you wouldn't drink. Some extract recipes call for bottom-of-the-barrel vodkas or high-percentage alcohols. For making better vanilla at home, you should choose an alcohol that you like to drink in a mixed cocktail — usually something mid-priced and mid-quality. Even better homemade vanilla extract can be made from ditching the vodka all together and using bourbon or rum instead.
4. Shake it up.
This subtle step, left out of most vanilla extract recipes, makes the extract stronger faster. Every few days give your bottles of vanilla extract a good shake. Since both the vanilla bean pods and their seeds tend to sink to the bottom of the bottle, shaking moves the infused alcohol around, allowing for better and faster extraction.
5. Store it properly.
What's the point of making vanilla extract if it eventually evaporates into nothing? Making sure that your vanilla extract is properly stored is as important as what vanilla beans you choose. Homemade extract should be stored in an airtight container — bonus points if it's light-blocking amber or cobalt — in a cool, dark place. Homemade vanilla extract can be stored indefinitely this way, although you should give it a whiff every year to make sure it still smells and tastes delicious.