Why would you want to make your own vanilla extract? Because you can! Why buy it when you can make it, remember?
There are actually several reasons why I do this. If you are concerned about extra coloring and sweeteners in products, you make your own. Even many of the store bought “pure” vanilla extract have those added ingredients in them. If you are concerned about price and have ever bought the imitation stuff like I have, then you have just flavored your delicious goodies with lignin wastes, which is a by-product of wood pulp industries, or something derived from guaiacol, which is a petrochemical product. It boggles the imagination that someone working in a wood pulp factory thought, “Oh, that smells like vanilla, let me put that in my cookies.”
I’m going off subject here, but bear with me for a minute. Artificial vanilla is called vanillan, which can be an allergen that causes hyperactivity in children, and can also trigger migraines. Many people think giving kids sugar makes them hyper, when in reality, many times it’s the dyes and chemicals that they are having an allergic reaction to. A friend of mine has children that have this reaction to foods with vanillan, and the result is crazy kiddos for a bit! I’m thankful we got to live in Italy, because we learned that other parts of the world do things a bit differently. Some Italian moms would send their kids off to school after giving them a spoonful of sugar to give them energy. As the typical American, I thought they were crazy, and those poor teachers!!! Well those kids weren,t flying off the walls. Years later I learned it’s not necessarily the sugar that sends kids into hyperdrive, but the chemicals we force down our kids throats.
Ok, so back to the vanilla. Making your own gives you a wonderful pure extract. It is an investment up front, but per ounce, it’s much cheaper from what you buy at the store. It’s a great idea to go in with a friend and split it also.
For extract, all you need is vodka, and vanilla beans. If you are like me, you need some boozer friends to educate you on vodka, I had no idea what kind to get! I have tried a few different ways to do this, and here’s what I’ve found. Cheap vodka does work just as well as a smoother, more expensive vodka does. The only difference in the end is the smell out of the bottle once it’s done. The cheap vodka I tried first had that rubbing alcohol smell to the vanilla, whereas the really good vodka smelled truly like vanilla. I’m picky, and want that wonderful vanilla smell out of the bottle, but if you are using it in your cooking, the alcohol does cook out, and they both left a great vanilla flavor. I had a friend of mine who bakes a lot to help me critique it, and they both worked wonderfully in the end. Of course whichever vodka you decide on does affect the final cost. The brands I tried were Heaven Hill, the cheap stuff, and Dripping Springs vodka, the good stuff. I’ve been told that Skyy is a good brand, and it’s a little better on cost, so am trying that the next time.
So on to the vanilla beans. For that traditional vanilla flavor, you want to use Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, and grade B or extract grade works great. They are a drier bean than the grade A, which you can still use, but the grade B is meant for extract and is less expensive and works wonderfully. I have found my vanilla beans on ebay from companies that sell them. Look around online to find a good price, the grocery store is not the place for this.
After experimenting, the best recipe that I have come up with is to use 5 beans, which are about 6-7 inches long, to 1 cup of vodka.
All you do is split the bean in half, leaving about 1 inch connected on 1 end. Either drop them in the vodka jar, or choose another clean glass jar. Put in a dark area, like a cabinet, and a couple of times a week, give it a shake. You can start using this after 2 months, but for the best vanilla flavor, let sit for 6 months. After 6 months, it’s gotten about as strong as it’s gonna get. You can either strain it and bottle it, or leave it in with the beans; they won’t hurt anything. The reason for straining it is to get a clear liquid without all the specks in it. But if you don’t mind specks, by all means, leave them in.
Being a frugal homemaker, of course you think of more than one reason to make something. So many things I make can be used as gifts, it’s always nice to give something away that you spent time making, and knowing it’s something of quality. This makes a wonderful hostess gift, great addition to a goody basket, or your friends can tease you that you are really only making yourself vanilla flavored vodka. Whatever.
One last bonus idea is once you’re done making vanilla, you can remove the beans, let them dry on a paper towel, then put them in another container and cover with sugar. Let them sit that way for a couple of weeks, shaking occasionally, and you get some vanilla flavored sugar to use.