Too often, we think our only option for vanilla extract is to pay the high prices at the grocery store for a high quality extract, or go cheap and get the imitation stuff, which has little to no real vanilla. Per Wikipedia,
"In the United States, castoreum, the exudate from the castor sacs of mature beavers, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive, often referenced simply as a "natural flavoring" in the product's list of ingredients. It is commonly used in both food and beverages, especially as vanilla and raspberry flavoring. It is also used to flavor some cigarettes and in perfume-making."
When I first read this, I about lost my lunch! Not appealing at all. I quit buying imitation vanilla. But I was spending some serious cash on good vanilla extract, even when I was able to use my husband's restaurant's food distributors.
One day I came across either a Pin or an article about making homemade vanilla. It intrigued me. I started researching the best way to make vanilla extract. Many blogs recommend using two or three beans in a small jar of alcohol, vodka, rum, bourbon, etc. And while I'm sure it was very tasty, it wouldn't produce the strength of vanilla that the FDA has set as guidelines for "real" or pure vanilla extract.
To make real vanilla extract, it needs to use an alcohol that is at least 70 proof, or 35% alcohol, and 0.85 ounces of vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of alcohol. While I enjoy a good math problem, I also like to make my life easy, so I rounded up the figure for the beans and use 1 ounce of beans, by weight, for every 8 ounces of alcohol, by volume. Very simple indeed!
You might ask, what is the ideal type of alcohol to use. As mentioned above, you want to use a minimum of 70 proof alcohol, although 80 proof will do you no harm. Many vodkas fall in this range. You could go higher, to 100 proof alcohol. Rums and bourbons often are this proof. If you really want pure, you could use 190 proof alcohol, or Everclear, but it is not available in all states in the USA, nor is it available in all countries. It's available here in Colorado, so I did use Everclear for some of my extracts. When you use Everclear, you will need to cut the extract with distilled water to bring the alcohol content down closer to 35%. If you do a 50/50 split with distilled water, you'll get it close enough. We're not going for exact here, but easy. By the way, top shelf brands really are not necessary. If that's the way you want to go, that's cool, but it isn't really needed. Middle shelf is preferable, but bottom shelf can also be used.
UPDATE: I didn't have the best of luck using the Everclear. I'd recommend using vodka or other 70 to 80 proof alcohols, and not use the grain alcohol. The vanilla extract that the Everclear produced was yellowish in color, and was the alcohol flavor was very strong. You can try cutting the Everclear first with distilled water, and then add the vanilla beans, but I'm not sure what results this would produce. (End update)
Okay, so enough of the boring details! Let's get into some vanilla extract making!
Oh wait! What about the vanilla beans? They can be very expensive if you buy them at the grocery store, and with the amount you'll need to make a decent sized batch of extract, it just wouldn't be economical to buy the beans from your local grocery store. So how do you get your hands on vanilla beans in bulk at an affordable price? Well, go online, of course!
I bought my vanilla beans from Vanilla Products USA and Beanilla. I did go through Amazon to get my original purchases from them, but when I ordered additional beans, I went direct. Because prices can fluctuate, I won't quote what I paid for mine, but if you keep an eye on them, you can often times find a great deal, such as free beans with purchase, or free shipping, etc. So check with them often to see what kind of bargains you can snag.
I should mention that you will see two different grades of vanilla beans: Grade A (Gourmet or Prime) and Grade B (Extract). What's the difference? Grade A beans are plumper due to higher moisture content, prettier and are used in cooking when you want to use the vanilla bean as part of the presentation, so you want an attractive bean. Grade B beans aren't pretty, they are drier, and have imperfections. These are perfect for extract making. Because they have a lower moisture content, you end up getting more beans per pound, which means you pay less per bean. Grade B beans also usually cost less, so they are a real bargain!
So how exactly do you get all that yummy goodness that the vanilla bean pods contain into the alcohol to make the extract? I'm glad you asked! It's quite easy, actually.
First, you do want to make sure you use very clean tools when making extract. If you have a dishwasher, run your cutting board, kitchen shears or sharp paring knife, and bottles through the sanitation or anti-bacterial wash mode, to ensure nice and clean tools. Or you can boil or steam your shears, knife and bottles. After cleaning my work surfaces, I then laid down sheets of wax paper, to catch any stray beans. Make sure your hands are clean, or you can even wear food-safe gloves. It's up to you.
When you open your package of beans, smell them. That's the real deal there, my friend. Depending on which variety you purchased, you may be treated to the vanilla smell you grew up on, or you could be greeted with a woodsy scent. You may be tempted to take a bath in them, but try to restrain yourself. These beans have a greater purpose!
I used my kitchen shears to prepare most of my beans, as I found it easier than using a sharp paring knife. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, the way I'm about to describe how to prepare the beans is what I followed for about half of the beans I bought (I bought a lot of beans!). I cut both ends off the beans and placed the ends in the jar. I then cut the beans, lengthwise, in half, exposing the little seeds, or caviar, in the middle.
Once the beans were all split, I took a butter knife, dull side down, and scraped the seeds out of the pods. I added the seeds to the jar. Once I had all the seeds removed, I then cut the pods into pieces, about 1.5" to 2" long.
For the Madagascar Bourbon beans, I put them in 1 quart (4 cup) mason jars. I used 4 ounces, by weight, of beans in each jar. Because of the volume of the beans, I actually didn't get to use a full 4 cups of alcohol, since the jars only hold 32 ounces. So the extracts I made in mason jars are stronger than FDA standards. I can't see that being a bad thing!
I did a couple of batches where I used half Madagasar Bourbon beans, half Tahitian beans. I had a few Tahitian beans left, so I decided to make a couple of smaller batches of extract. I went to my baking supply room, where I also keep a variety of bottles of booze (mostly for baking, some for drinking), and pulled out a bottle of Grey Goose vodka that had about half a cup left.
I also had some Hiram Walker Kirschwasser, a cherry liqueur. I filled a small 8 ounce pretty bottle with about an ounce of Tahitian beans, filled mostly with vodka, then topped it off with about an ounce or so of the Kirschwasser. That should prove to be a tasty gourmet vanilla extract.
I scraped the seeds from the Mexican beans and stuffed them into the bottle.
Then added the pods, without cutting them into smaller pieces, since I used a tall bottle. Oh wow, look at those beans.
This is the Mexican vanilla just one day later. I can tell you that the Mexican vanilla, after about three weeks, is already starting to get thick. It is no longer the thin consistency of the alcohol. I think it's due to the fact that I had to buy Grade A beans, as Beanilla was out of stock of the Grade B Mexican beans, and the sugar content was higher. It's syrupy. Oh my.
When you've prepared all of your vanilla extract, you want to store it in a cool dark place, such as a pantry or cupboard, and shake it daily for the first week. Then, for the next five weeks or so, shake it every few days. Then for the next four to five months (if you can wait that long), shake it when you think about it.
Your vanilla extract will be fully developed at six months. That may seem like a long time, but believe me, it will be worth the wait. And, it gives you the opportunity to use up whatever vanilla extract you may have previously purchased.
Because vanilla extract makes such a great gift, you will want to make extra to give to friends and family. You can buy pretty bottles to put the extract in, or to keep for your own use. Two ounce and four ounce bottles are the perfect size for gift giving. Amber or blue bottles help to keep the light out, which is recommended.
You can also gift whole beans and encourage your family and friends to try making extract themselves. I surprised my mom and aunt with their very own beans to make some extract. I also gave them a gourmet Madagascar Bourbon bean to use for cooking.
For the sample beans I had bought from Beanilla, I purchased glass shooter bottles from my local liquor store, and used them to make small bottles of extract. I bought Absolut vodka and Chivas Regal 12 year old scotch whisky. Mainly because one, the bottles were made of glass, and two, because the labels were removable. I carefully removed the labels from the glass tubes that held the beans, and applied the labels to the label-less Absolut vodka bottles. We did use the vodka in those bottles to make the extract. I used the scotch in a small jar and mixed it with Madagascar Bourbon beans. That vanilla should be yummy when used in a pecan pie.