Many years ago, I got a vanilla making kit. It came with a flip top bottle and a label that had instructions. However, it had only two measly, dried out vanilla beans. I poured in my alcohol and was never happy with the results. Therefore, it sat in the back of my cupboard for years. Eventually, I learned that you need more beans to really make extract. Over time, I added more beans to the jar. Still, the jar remained in the back of my cupboard. Eventually, I found the extract smelled just like my store bought double strength vanilla extract. It just needed more beans and lots of time. This is my current extract to use in baking. I have kept this jar going for over 12 years.
Vanilla extract information
Vanilla extract is regulated by the FDA in the United States, vanilla extract must have at least 35% (70 proof) alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans to 1 gallon alcohol. There are differing opinions on how long you should let the mixture sit and extract. I have come to the conclusion that the longer the better, but a minimum of 9-12 months is ideal. It is best to keep your extract in a relatively dark place, you can shake it every so often.
The most popular alcohol, for those who make extract at home, is vodka. vodka is basically flavorless, so the vanilla will shine through. Many also use white rum, which will give the extract a underlying sweetness from the rum flavor. You can really use any type of alcohol you want, but you want at least 70 proof and not more than 100 proof. You can use alcohol that is more than 100 proof, but you need to water it down with distilled water (the ratios can be found online).
The math, using the FDA guidelines, equals out to about .84 ounces of beans per cup of alcohol for a single fold (strength) extract. I like to round up to 1 oz beans per cup of alcohol. This allows me to use some of the beans in the jar for caviar (vanilla bean seeds) without compromising the strength of my extract. I typically do a double fold (strength) extract, as that is what I prefer to use in my baking. That means 2 oz of beans per cup (8 oz) of alcohol.
Vanilla bean sourcing for vanilla extract
In 2020, I discovered an online Vanilla Bean Co-op that operates from a Facebook group. It is a glorious source for high-quality vanilla beans. I learned a lot about vanilla and vanilla extract through the group. They have one open order at a time, for one type of vanilla bean. It is a co-op that works through pre-order, so it takes a while to get your order.
The co-op is run by the owner of Indrivanilla, which is the retail site. You can order there, prices are higher than the co-op prices, but they will ship right away. In the past, I have ordered vanilla beans from The Spice House or Amazon. The Spice House is where I usually order my double strength vanilla extract (prior to using my own homemade).
The fun part has been ordering beans from all over the globe and being able to experiment by making extract from different beans. My plan is to compare and learn the different nuances of the beans. I can’t wait to discover which are my favorites. I also have jars of beans in different alcohols and want to continue to experiment with the different flavor profiles that different alcohols give to the extract.
Vanilla bean facts
Vanilla beans come from the vanilla orchid. They grow in tropical climates. The vanilla bean is a long green bean that grows from the orchid. There are two main species of the orchid that produce the commercial vanilla beans. Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis.
The growing of vanilla beans is labor intensive. Vanilla orchids have to grow three years before they will be mature enough to produce beans. Vanilla orchids have to be hand-pollinated, because the flowers are only opened for a short window of time. The vanilla beans are harvested while still green, it takes 4-6 months for the beans to grow large enough to harvest.
Vanilla bean theft is an issue with growers.
There is a lot of theft in the vanilla bean industry. Growers will hire security to watch their orchids and to protect the beans. The growers often mark their beans with what is called a bean “tattoo”. The growers have a special symbol that they poke into the green vanilla beans when they are young. As they grow, it spreads out, and you can sometimes see the pattern in the cured bean, as a kind of scar on the bean. Once harvested, the beans are cured. The curing process can take six months.
There are a couple different curing processes. The bourbon cure method (named after the bourbon islands, not the alcohol) uses hot water/steam to cure them. The Mexican method of curing uses the sun, the beans are laid out in blankets on concrete slabs and cured in the hot sun. These different curing methods can impart different subtle flavor changes to the beans. The curing process is what makes the beans brown and have the aroma we associate with vanilla. This labor intensive process, and the fact that weather events have wiped out crops in recent years, has made the price of vanilla beans and good quality vanilla extract skyrocket.
Making vanilla extract
Making vanilla extract is simple. A kitchen scale is really helpful if you want to weigh out your beans. Vanilla beans can mold easily and also do not like to be in the cold, so do not freeze or refrigerate them. The best way to store them is to either vacuum seal them (but check on them to make sure the container doesn’t leak air and that they don’t mold) or get them directly into alcohol.
To make vanilla extract place your beans in your container and cover with alcohol (how much alcohol will depend on what your beans weigh…1 oz beans to 8 oz/1 cup alcohol). Make sure that your beans are covered in the alcohol and not sticking out, so they don’t develop mold. You can bend them or tie them in a knot to keep them under the alcohol.
To split or not to split the vanilla bean
You can split or cut up your beans before putting the in the alcohol, you will increase the strength and shorten the time to extract if you do. I like to put my beans in whole so I can use them for the vanilla “caviar” or seeds. I cut up the pod, after scraping out the seeds, and put it back in my jar of extract. This method allows me to know that the cut up beans are already used caviar, and they still will continue to extract in the alcohol. The pod of the vanilla bean is where the majority of the flavor is, so using the caviar, won’t make much difference in the extract final product.
As you use up your extract, you can top off the jar with alcohol and let it sit again. Another option is to pour all the ready extract out of your jar (into another container) and re-use the beans to make another batch, although it will be less potent. You can add new beans to the old to increase the strength, as well.
I love to use vanilla sugar in my coffee, tea, or in baking. It gives a wonderful added vanilla boost to whatever I use it in. You can buy vanilla sugar, but it is fairly expensive for what you are getting. This is a very easy and cost effective method. I use a quart size mason jar and keep it in my pantry, I like to use these plastic lids on my jars (affiliate link).
To make vanilla sugar I put various pieces of beans in the jar and fill with sugar. The beans I use are ones that have already been repeatedly used for vanilla extract and that I have already used the caviar out of the bean. Simply remove a piece of bean pod from the alcohol and let it dry out on the counter on a paper towel. Add the dried bean pod to your jar of sugar. I don’t like to add a visibly wet bean to the sugar as it will cause it to clump up. Let the sugar sit with the vanilla beans in it, till it has a nice vanilla scent. I use the sugar straight out of the jar.
As you use some of the vanilla sugar, just add more sugar to the jar and shake well to distribute it. It does not take long for it to become vanilla flavored. This is a great way to get the most out of the investment you made in your vanilla beans, after they have been used for extract and caviar.
Can grind dry beans and add to sugar or salt
You can also grind up dried vanilla beans with a spice grinder (coffee grinder) and add the pulverized powder to your sugar for big punch of vanilla flavor and black flecks throughout your sugar. You can do the same with salt and make a vanilla salt to sprinkle on items or use in baking.