CBS Sunday Morning ran a fascinating story this morning on Madagascar vanilla that reignited my passion for making my own vanilla extract! Not only do you save between half and 2/3rds of the cost at the grocery store, it’s a great gift idea! Another bonus: the flavor is rich and aromatic and strong: meaning a little goes a long way.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
Before You Start
Making an extract is simple, but you will need to invest in the ingredients up front: vanilla beans (best ordered online: see below), a big bottle of alcohol (see below), some bottles, and a couple of months for it to work its magic (as the folks at Beanilla say, “Slice, Pour, Shake and Wait).
Types of Vanilla Beans and Their Flavor Profiles
You can buy vanilla in many different forms, and each have their own advantages and uses.
- Madagascar vanilla (also called bourbon vanilla). A creamy and rich vanilla bean. This tends to be the most popular choice and is one of the easiest to find. If the store doesn’t specify what type of vanilla you’re getting, it’s probably from Madagascar.
- Indian vanilla. This has a chocolatey vanilla flavor and is a common favorite.
- Tonga vanilla. Has an earthy flavor, with some similarities to figs or raisins.
- Mexican vanilla. Has a bold and dark flavor, along with smoky overtones. The intensity makes it great in recipes that feature vanilla flavors prominently. Mexican vanilla is often considered the best vanilla beans, even though options like Madagascar vanilla are currently more popular.
- Tahitian vanilla. A more floral vanilla, with hints of cherry and chocolate flavorings. Some people mention that it tastes a little like licorice. Because the flavor is more unusual and nuanced, Tahitian vanilla can work well in recipes that heavily rely on vanilla flavor.
- Indonesian vanilla. Generally a well-balanced and mild option.
- Ugandan vanilla. This is a less common type of vanilla bean but it is still worth considering. This vanilla has a rich flavor that is reminiscent of milk chocolate. The beans are particularly well-suited to making desserts, especially if the recipe uses chocolate as an ingredient.
Vanilla beans are graded based on their moisture content, condition and how rich their scent is. While the plump and flavorful (Grade A) is ideal for baking, the less expensive Grade B Madagascar vanilla beans work just fine for homemade vanilla extract. I’ve had the best results buying my beans at Beanilla, [free shipping within the U.S. too). Amazon has them too.
The Beans’ Booze Bath
These beans get happy in a strong booze bath. The most common booze choice is vodka because it is neutral in flavor, but with its smoky, rich flavor (and high alcohol content), bourbon (or any kind of whisky) is a solid choice as well. Or if you prefer rum or brandy, go for it! Just note that whatever you use, it is very important that it contain a minimum of 35% alcohol (or 70 proof Vodka).
Swing Top Bottles
For the bottles, I prefer the swing top variety because they are great for sealing in the flavor. I love the ones at Beanilla but I’ve bought them at Amazon too. They even come in mini sizes, making them great for gifts or party favors.
To get the seeds out of the vanilla bean, cut off the end of the bean with a sharp knife and slice the vanilla bean lengthwise fashion. Leave the seed paste intact.
Measure 8 oz of your booze of choice into the clean, dry bottles and put 5-6 beans in each. Make sure they are completely submerged: cut them if necessary, to fit your jar size.
Cap the bottles and store in a cool, dark pantry or storage area. Once a week or so, flip the bottles back and forth to give the vanilla beans a chance to mix. As the weeks go by, your extract will get darker and richer in flavor.
Your vanilla can be used in as early as eight weeks, but longer is better. If giving as a gift, include an instructions card to shake the bottle every week or so.
And here’s a bonus: you can add more alcohol as the extract gets used up: just keep the beans in the jar!
Many thanks to the folks at Live Eat and Learn and Beanilla.