Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Homemade Vanilla

A Deliciously Aromatic Tutorial
by Carla Ludington

A 3 month old bottle of homemade vanilla extract
I love real vanilla, but I can hardly bring myself to pay full price for the good stuff, which is unfortunate because I do quite a bit of baking and cooking. I finally could not bare the thought of purchasing it, so the next best alternative is to try to make it myself!!

The site I found most helpful was Vanilla Review.  Ian has a ton of information, and the comments were also helpful to browse through and see people's different experiences.

Having never ordered vanilla beans before, and not sure what to expect, $20 seems like a bit to drop for an experiment.  Far more awkward was dropping the $ for the alcohol!  There is lots of advice out there about what makes 'the best vanilla extract', but really, it all seems to boil down to vanilla beans and vodka, so don't stress.  Want proof? (ha-ha, get it? :0)  Read on to learn about my stressed out adventure.

While there are many places to choose from, I ordered a pound of vanilla beans from Saffron Imports.  Specifically, I ordered 1/2 a pound of Planifolia beans, and 1/2 a pound of Tahitian beans. The bonus was for orders over $20 you get a free 2 oz bottle of vanilla extract or a 5 bean sample.  Note that 'extract quality' beans are drier than 'gourmet quality' beans.  Extract beans have a lower water content, which is ideal for vanilla extract.  You will also get more bang for your buck, since by weight there will be less water content.  Really, either should work just fine.

Packaged Tahitian Vanilla Beans. 
Purchasing the alcohol ended up being an even bigger part of the experiment.  Vodka, rum, and bourbon were all recommended as the extract medium.  I had heard that the best vanilla extract was made from Bourbon, so we tried our first batch using Bourbon Whiskey.  To me personally, the smell of the alcohol was overwhelmingly sickening.  Perhaps it was that my nose is inexperienced in the aroma of alcohol or that my alcoholic choice was an inexpensive selection, (is there Bourbon that is not Whiskey?) but whatever the reason, it smelled AWFUL to me.  There was not much of a vanilla smell to it, but an overwhelmingly sickening smell of whiskey. While you can use Bourbon, (so I've seen at least), It turns out the Bourbon vanilla being referred to was from one of the islands vanilla beans come from.  Who knew??

For the second try, my husband & I had a conversation about what makes the extract work.  We discussed using Vodka (which is the most commonly used alcohol), but after conversations he had with co-workers, he wanted to try Everclear, as it has the highest percentage of alcohol content - it is a grain alcohol, made from corn, that is 190 proof (95% alcohol).  Initially this seemed like it was working well, however in comparison to other batches we have made, this still smells like rubbing alcohol (duh, it is 95% alcohol), and has not extracted as much vanilla as we would have expected.  I have considered adding distilled water to it to hopefully improve the probability of extracting more vanilla.

Well, third time is a charm, right?  We used, drum roll please, vodka - which is what was suggested from the get go by many.  We aimed for a mid-level Vodka, picking up an Absolut Vodka on the first trip to try it out, and then getting a Svedka on a trip to Sam's Club to get it in bulk, which was by far the cheapest option, even considering the many discount liquor stores in "wet" ol' New Mexico.

The Caviar is very small, soft and grainy. 

To prepare the extract, we sliced the beans lengthwise four times, and then scraped out the "caviar" (the inside of the bean). The bean and caviar were then scraped into a glass bottle.  A dark glass bottle is recommended, but we had easy and inexpensive access to clear glass bottles with a re-sealable rubber stopper, and plan to keep them in the closet out of sunlight.

Our vanilla extract assembly process.

The 'recipe' I used, if you can call it that, was:  30 grams vanilla beans for 250 mL alcohol, which is about 8 vanilla beans.  Therefore, for 1750 mL you will use approximately 56 beans, or about 1/2 lb. vanilla beans.

It is important that the vanilla beans in the bottle are constantly covered up by the alcohol, no ends or points sticking out.   On one of the batches we made, we got lazy and just sliced the beans length wise once or twice and then put it in the blender and pulsed it a few times. It did make very quick work of

the slicing / scraping.  My only reservation is that after the extract is complete, this precludes you from being able to remove the pieces, dry them, and then add them to a container of sugar to make vanilla sugar.  However, the bonus is that the vanilla bean pieces stay submerged in the alcohol, even if I am siphoning off a little bit at a time to stock my pantry.

Extract in vodka after processing

For best results, the recommended extract time is approximately 6 months.  Shake the extract every day the first week, then once a week for 6 months, or really, just when you see them and think about it.  It is supposed to age like wine, and will get better as time passes.

Within a week, the color between the Everclear and Vodka was noticeably different.  The Everclear looks slightly pale, while the Vodka is very dark and rich in color.  It still smells very strongly of alcohol, but after being made, aside from a weekly shaking, it needs to sit for about six months.

Left: vodka @ 3 months;
Center: Vodka @ 1 month;
Right: Everclear @ 3 months

After about 3 months, it has a beautiful vanilla aroma to accompany the slight alcohol smell.  When I was in the middle of cooking and used up the last of my store bought vanilla and was in a pinch, I tried it out, and it was just fine.  I refilled my store bought bottle, but left the rest of the extract-in-process in the closet in the pantry to let it sit a few more months.

For me, this is a keeper!!  Definitely easy to do, inexpensive (if you don't buy the wrong alcohol first!!!), and the smell is A-MAZING!!  The wait time is kind of annoying, but the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention (or motivation) is so true in my case.  I finally just DID IT and now I have awesome vanilla to use for the next long while.  Hypothetically, I made a little extra for small Christmas gifts, but I don't know who reads this blog, so if it is you, just act surprised and enjoy :0)

So, ready to try your hand at it?  I saved a few extra beans to pass on in a double giveaway - yeah!!!  To enter to win, comment here or on our Facebook page and reveal what you have tried (or want to try) from any of the different posts we have done on Our Journey to Self Reliance thus far.  For a second chance to win, tell us something you would like to learn more about or try to do, but need someone else to do first to give you the motivation to start or try.  If you are new to the journey, become a follower or like us on our Facebook page (and message us so we know to look for you!)

Just for kicks, tell us what you have enjoyed the most about sharing our journey - we would love to hear from you!!  TWO winners will be picked August 9th by a random number generator, announced in the comments, and messaged to obtain mailing info.  Good luck and thanks for sharing a little about your journey!   :0)


  1. Very interesting....and funny. I think I'll pass this on to a friend that like cooking from scratch. I should also send it to my daughter-in-law who was very excited when Dee told her about it.

    1. I neglected to mention, but if you don't shred the beans to make the extract, you can dehydrate them and use them to make vanilla sugar. I meant to save a few to try that, but had just enough for the giveaway. :0) Thanks for sharing our journey!!

  2. I have been wanting to try making my own vanilla. I am glad you did the leg work on testing the different kinds of alcohol for me!
    I have just recently started the No Poo method of washing my hair, and so far it is turning out pretty well! I am soooo glad to be getting away from all the chemicals. (also it is nice that if I didn't make it to the shower one day my hair is not really greasy the next... )
    Let's see, what do I want to try to do/learn more about... jerky making! I love good home made jerky. That is on my to learn list.

    1. Thanks for checking us out!! Glad you are enjoying no poo. Dee did a post about jerky not too long ago. Glad you are getting a chance to try a few new things! :0)

  3. Thanks for stopping by on my SITS day.

    I've heard about making vanilla yourself before. I think my sister did it, she also intended to give as Christmas gifts, but I never received a bottle. That makes me wonder what happened with her plan.

    1. That is our intent with some of this, but it is so good, I can see why your sister maybe didn't pass it on, lol! I hope you get a chance to try it - it was very easy. Thanks for stopping by, and welcome to our journey! :0)

  4. Wish we could clear up the Bourbon thing. I bought some bourbon vanilla from Costco once and LOVED it. (Haven't seen any there since and I look every time we go.) Anyway, thanks for this very enlightening post.. I just may try this one of these days. :)

    1. Yeah, I hear you, $30 later, lol. Funny story: when I was telling my mom I was going to make my own vanilla, she was a little weirded out at first because I was going to use alcohol to make it, then I panicked thinking I must be making it all wrong, then after I researched it, that is how they make ALL extracts, so I can't make it any weirder than what they already sell, ha-ha :0)

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments and for checking out the post. The winners are Carolyn (here on OJTSR) and Amy Diaz (on OJTSR via fB). Thanks so much for stopping in and sharing your comments!! Good luck with your batch of vanilla extract!!

  6. Hi Carla! I was just looking on Amazon for vanilla beans to make my own vanilla and here you have posted about it! God is really leading me on my journey as well! Thanks for sharing! Blessings from Bama!

  7. Umm.... I would LOVE to try this, but I live in a dry village, meaning it is illegal for me to bring vodka or anything else here - but if you sent me something from that part I skipped about Christmas presents???....

  8. Now that it's a year later, how has your vanilla extract that you made with everclear tasting? I too made some with everclear, vodka, rum, scotch wiskey, and cherry flavored vodka. My oldest batch right now is sitting at almost three months old. Did you ever add distilled water to it? If so, at what point in the "brewing" process?