Project Vanilla

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Before you start jumping to all kinds of wrong conclusions about me, let me tell you what I don’t do. I don’t bake my own bread. I don’t roll my own pasta. I don’t simmer my own stocks. I don’t make my own yogurt, cheese, beer, wine, or jam. I don’t grow my own vegetables or herbs. I have been known to churn my own butter, but if you knew how insanely easy that is you wouldn’t think much of it. I don’t, as a matter of course, can, pickle, bottle or preserve much of anything. While I might do any one of these things occasionally – purely for culinary kicks, mind you – if you assumed my fridge and shelves are full of anything other than what I bought at the supermarket last time I was there, I’m sorry to say you’d be sorely, sadly mistaken.

I’ve told you all this not because I’m looking for your sympathy (or scorn), but so you can better appreciate the following. I do make my own vanilla extract, and if I can do it, I’m pretty sure you can too.

It’s funny, my vanilla-making started without the fanfare of many of my other culinary projects. This spring’s sourdough project, for example, required a level of planning, commitment and meticulous attention to detail more akin to building a nuclear bomb than cultivating a bit of fungus in a bowl. And while after completing Nancy Silverton’s gruelling two-week boot camp of precision-timed twice-daily feedings I felt proud as a new parent when my first little loaf actually rose in the oven, that couldn’t keep me from abandoning the poor starter to its fate in the back of the fridge a few months later. Preserve-making is another sad story; after forcing myself to get over my fear of canning one fateful day last year, I naturally assumed I would be canning up a storm every summer for the rest of my life, and quite possibly never buy mass-produced jam again. How has that gone, you ask? I think you know the answer.

But this vanilla thing, it all started so innocuously. So innocuously, in fact, that I didn’t even know what I was doing until after I had done it. A couple of years ago, you see, I made my first bulk purchase of vanilla beans through the internet (at what I thought then must be misprinted prices), and all of a sudden I had a problem I’d never faced before: a growing pile of used beans that were still far too fragrant to throw away. I tried sticking them in sugar like everyone suggests, but I was going through beans so quickly that I ended up infusing every bag we bought, and I grew tired of having to run out to the store every time I wanted a pinch of non-vanilla-scented sugar to stick in my pasta sauce. I had a bottle of light rum on the shelf, though, and this brilliant idea hit me that if I stuck a few beans in the rum, after a few months I might have a very interesting cocktail mixer – maybe even one I could give as a gift, with a cute hand-printed recipe for a vanilla mojito or something.

So I put a few spent beans in the rum, stuck it back in the cupboard, and pretty much did nothing to it except open it every so often to throw in a new bean. I noticed the color getting darker and the aroma getting stronger, but it didn’t hit me until about five months later when I finally decanted some that what I had actually made was not any vanilla-flavored booze, but a ripe, powerful and intoxicatingly fragrant vanilla extract. I quickly finished up my trusted Nielsen Massey and started using this in its place, and wouldn’t you know, it was every bit as good, if not even better! I ordered more vanilla beans – Tahitian ones this time – and kept adding my spent ones to the bottle, topping the liquid up every now and then with whatever mild alcohol we happened to have on hand, and as the months passed the flavor grew stronger, bolder, more complex. That was a year and a half ago, and I’ve never looked back.

I feel a bit silly trying to convince you that you too can easily make your own homemade vanilla extract, like Nancy Silverton convinced me I could have bread as good as hers coming out of my oven every weekend when what would actually happen is that I would spend weeks creating a living thing only to have it end up in the trash, but really, I can’t stress enough how easy this is. If you use vanilla beans regularly – and I’ll give you a couple of sources for cheap ones in a minute – there’s no reason not to; it’s effort-free, it’s more versatile than vanilla sugar, and it makes really great gifts (maybe even better than vanilla flavored rum!). And the best part? If you forget about it for a couple of months, it doesn’t shrivel up and die, it actually improves. I’m not quite sure what it says about me that the one project I’ve had success with is the one that actually requires neglect, but hey, as long as there’s great vanilla coming out of it I’m not going to sweat the implications.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

There are probably easier ways to do it, where you just use a set ratio of beans to alcohol and let it sit until ready. The beauty of this method, however, is that a) aside from the very beginning, you’re only sticking used beans in there (which feels delightfully frugal), b) your extract will continue to improve as you keep adding new beans, and c) once you get the ball rolling, as long as you keep using vanilla beans in your kitchen you’ll have an unending supply of extract on hand too. Pretty nifty, no?

Yield: 1 quart/liter to begin with, and as much as you like after that

1. Find a supplier of good, cheap vanilla beans. I buy mine from the San Francisco-based Vanilla, Saffron Imports, whose beans I can highly recommend (though interestingly enough, I haven’t been all that impressed with their extracts); another good option is eBay; try The Organic Vanilla Bean Company or Vanilla Products USA – or just search for ‘vanilla beans’ to see all your local options. All of these companies will ship anywhere in the world, though the eBay sellers are probably the cheapest for that. I usually buy 1/2 lb. at a time (about 60-80 beans, depending on variety), which lasts me for about a year, depending on how much baking I do. If you can, get a mixture of Bourbon (Madagascar) and Tahitian beans; I usually prefer the Bourbon’s flavor, but a mixture makes a very nice extract.

2. Buy two 4-oz (118ml) jars of vanilla extract – something good and strong, like Nielsen-Massey, Penzey’s, etc. Trader Joe’s is fine too. Just make sure it’s real vanilla extract, not some nasty cocktail of chemicals. Now, put one on the shelf and start using it. Yes, it’s going to take a while for your homemade stuff to be ready, and you’ll need something to tide you over. Sorry, there’s no way around it! The other one you’ll be using to kickstart your homemade stuff. If you live in some remote corner of the planet where you can’t buy vanilla extract, I’m afraid you’ll have to skip this step. Your homemade extract will take a while longer, but it will still be good.

3. Buy two bottles of booze: vodka, light rum, bourbon, or whatever as long as it’s around 40%
alcohol. Nothing fancy, just the cheapest stuff your supermarket sells. Some people shy away from booze with its own flavor, but you’ll be using it in such small quantities that it really won’t make a difference, though if you’re worried about that just use vodka. Again, put one bottle in the cupboard (no, this one is not to tide you over, so hands off!). This is your ‘top-up’ bottle which you will start using once you start decanting your own extract. You can, of course, buy the second bottle later, but it never hurts to be prepared.

4. Find yourself a 1 quart/liter glass container with a lid such as a mason jar, an old booze bottle, etc. Clean it well. Make sure it doesn’t harbor any weird odors.

5. Pour one bottle of store-bought extract and one bottle of booze into the container. Now you need to add some vanilla beans. If you’ve already got some used ones lying around, lucky you – use those. If you don’t, you’ll have to sacrifice some new ones. How many you put in to start with is completely up to you; the more you put in the faster your extract will be ready. I think I started with 4-6 new ones, and added 3-4 used ones per month after that. Split them down the middle and throw them in. Put the lid on tightly, give everything a shake, and put the container in a cool, dark cupboard somewhere.

6. Carry on with your normal life, using both the extract on your shelf and your vanilla beans, only that every time you use a vanilla bean, throw it in the container afterwards. If you’ve simmered the bean in milk or something for your recipe, give it a good rinse first. Take the container out and shake it around once a week or so, at which time feel free to poke your nose in and see how things are developing. It will start out smelling powerfully like alcohol, but over time, the vanilla flavors will take over and the boozy smell will almost disappear.

7. Continue doing this for, oh, at least 6-8 weeks. The longer the better. Of course YMMV depending on your personal consumption habits, but what we’re aiming for is that by the time you’ve finished that bottle of store-bought extract on your shelf, your own should be rich, fragrant and ready to start decanting. The other reason to wait until you’ve finished the supply on your shelf is that you can use the handy little bottle for your own extract.

8. When the container of homemade extract has reached your preferred strength, decant some into your own 4 oz bottle (or multiple little bottles, if you’re going to give some away). Now get out that second bottle of booze you stashed away all those weeks ago and top up the container so it’s full again. You’ll need to do this every time after you decant. You can probably leave all the beans in there at this point, but as a general rule if things start to get too crowded in there I just remove a few of the mushiest ones. Place the container back in the cupboard to mature for another couple of months and repeat steps 6-8 as many times as you like. The extract you get from it will just keep getting better and better and better…