How to Make Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract is expensive, but as an ingredient, it is perhaps on the of most important for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, it is also very expensive in stores. Even when purchasing online the price is quite high. You could settle for imitation vanilla extract, which isn't the worst thing but doesn't taste nearly as good. You could pay the high price for quality flavor. You could go to places like Mexico where it is cheaper. You could even buy it in bulk. But why do any of these things when making it gives you so much more and it is so much cheaper. The bonus! You get bragging rights and a sense of satisfaction at doing something so awesome!
Descriptions of Bean Flavors
The Mexican vanilla bean has a very full flavor which is often described as creamy and spicy. Extracts made with this bean often have a pinch of cinnamon added to it to enhance this flavoring.
Tahitian vanilla beans are known for their intense floral aroma.
The Madagascar vanilla bean is a smooth & sweet flavor. This bean is also known as Bourbon vanilla and is highly prized in both its bean forms and in extracts.
Choosing Your Beans Wisely
When making vanilla extract from scratch, you must choose your beans wisely. There are several varieties of beans to choose from. Just to name a few you have Mexican, Tahitian and Madagascar. The latter is the best according to many top chefs and culinary experts and I agree.
Madagascar beans are so fragrant and strong they are recommended for making almost anything that calls for Vanilla no matter the form. The problem is that this bean can be VERY expensive if you go buy it in cooking stores or health food store. That is why I recommend a specific website. MySpiceSage.com is great because they have a wide variety of spices AND they have promotions that rotate every month or so. When I got my beans I waited until they did the for Madagascar vanilla beans. It varies, but as of the writing of this article the same promotion as made it into the rotation again. If you buy $20 worth of stuff you get 8 beans free. Since every order over $20 you get a free sample of spices you can get another 2 beans for free as well. IF you want a lot of vanilla, you can (as of the writing of this article) get 32 additional beans for less than $30 for a grand total of 42 beans. At less than $1 a bean you are getting a good deal. I can personally attest that all of the spices from MySpiceSage.com are the highest quality.
Your beans should be plump and moist with natural oils, not brittle and dry. Your booze of choice should be good quality. There are those who say you can filter cheap vodka to make it better, but it is the alcohol that is poor quality, not the filtration. Invest a few dollars more into good quality stuff for a smoother and better tasting extract. Bad booze makes the flavoring sour.
What Is Needed
In order for you to make vanilla extract you will need the following:
The Vanilla Beans (5 or 6 for every 750 milliliters of alcohol)
Vodka or Bourbon (80 Proof, which means 40% alcohol)
A dark bottle with a good lid (clean & dry)
A sharp pairing knife
A clean plate (Cutting board is not the best option. I'll explain later on.)
(Optional) A funnel
Fill your bottle...
...and don't sip from it. You'll be handle a knife soon so you need all your wits and dexterity.
When you pour in the booze, be sure to leave space in the bottle near the top as when you add the vanilla the displacement will make the vodka overflow if it is too full. This is where you would use the funnel if you don't have a steady hand or live on a house boat.
If only my vanilla beans were emo...
...because then they would cut themselves. When you make vanilla extract, you can just cut the beans and insert them into the bottle, but it is suggested that you scrape the seeds out as this will cause the mixture to defuse better. Before you do that you must slice the beans in half. Firmly press the bean into the plate and slice from one end to the other. The bean should be moist. If it is really dry then you have means that aren't so good.
This is where the place comes into play. Cutting boards (plastic, wood or bamboo) all are porous and so absorb the juices from the bean. The plate will prevent this and so maximize what you can get from the beans.
Make sure to cut deeply through the beans. If needed feel free to cut the beans completely in half. Once cut, use your finger and the knife to spread the cut edges of the bean apart.
Scraping the Bottom of the...
...bean. Or rather the insides. Once you pull the sides of the bean apart, using the blade of the knife scrape the seeds out of the pod. The seeds will have the consistency of a paste. Using the knife, scrape the seeds into the bottle. The paste will stick to the rim so push them into the liquid using the tip of the knife.
Don't try to scraping from end to end. That will lead to getting yourself cut and there is no such thing as blood and vanilla extract. Start with the middle of the bean and go from the middle to the end, then rotate the bean and repeat. Do not throw away the pods when your done. We will use these as well.
Here comes a chopper to...
...chop up the vanilla bean pods. You can leave the bean pods whole if you wish, but by chopping them you release more of the flavor stored in the pod shell. Insert the chopped pods into the bottle. Cap the bottle and show the bottle well. Store in a cool dry place and shake the bottle once a week for at least 3 weeks. Like fine wines, quality extracts get better with age. I would suggest letting it sit for 3 months or more.
When you are ready...
...to use the extract, use cheese cloth or a coffee filter over a jar or bowl to remove the fibers and seeds. To filter hands free, just put the coffee filter in a mason jar and put the ring lid without the metal middle over it. This way the liquid can be poured into the filter without fear of liquid spilling over. Once filtered, re-bottle in smaller bottles or in a clean dry bottle. Always be sure to use dark glass bottles as light can cause the flavor to deteriorate. I use a 4 oz bottle with a dropper. This flavoring makes an amazing wedding, Christmas or birthday gift.
If you want, you can use the seeds and pods again, but I would suggest adding an additional bean or two to make sure the next batch is flavorful.
It wasn't until I ran out of vanilla extract and REALLY needed some fast that I thought about this approach. It is not NEARLY as flavorful as the above approach, but it works really well. Especially if you let it sit for a while.
Toss the vanilla beans and some alcohol (vodka is preferred) into a high-speed blender like a Blandtec or VitaMix. Blend the mix for 2 or 3 minutes on high. Pour the mix into a bottle and add additional alcohol to fill the bottle.
Again, the longer the mix sits the better. If you don't like bits in your extract, use a coffee filter or some fine cloth to strain the liquid.