DIY vanilla extract

Looking for something that’s easy to make, and incredibly useful? Look no further! Vanilla extract is right up there at the top of the list of things I’ll never buy again. REAL vanilla extract is incredibly flavorful. So much better than the cheap artificial stuff I was buying before. Apparently, if you want to get all technical about it, artificial vanilla is made using only artificial vanillin derived from wood pulp (gross), where as real vanilla extract contains several hundred additional flavor compounds that give it a complex, deep flavor. It smells good, too – I’d wear it as perfume, but it would make me smell like a cupcake and I don’t want that (while I do want to smell like a cupcake, I don’t want to be craving cupcakes all day). And, fun bonus, it makes a great gift. But no, I can’t make it for you. Apparently that’s illegal unless I want to get a Food Processor license and prepare it in a commercial kitchen (no thank you).

So how, exactly, do you make vanilla extract? It’s likely the easiest thing I’ll ever tell you how to make. Put vanilla beans in vodka and let it sit for at least a month. THAT’S. IT.

There are 2 kinds of vanilla beans (well, for our purposes anyway). Grade A beans are the kind that you see fancy-pants chefs using. You can slice them down the middle and use the back of a knife to scoop out the innards. They’re flavorful, moist, supple, and expensive as all get out. And you do NOT use them for vanilla extract. That would be like putting grapes in trail mix. Sure, you COULD do it, but it’s weird, a waste of grapes, and that’s what raisins are for.

Grade B beans are what we’re looking for when making vanilla extract. They’re much drier, difficult to bend, highly concentrated, and next to impossible to cut down the middle like you would a Grade A bean (at least not without losing a finger). The most common varieties are Madagascar, Bourbon and Tahitian beans. I’ve heard that Tahitian beans are slightly sweeter and a little more floral, but I haven’t noticed a big difference (I buy whatever’s cheapest on Amazon at the time). Speaking of which, the vanilla market is extremely volatile and prices can vary dramatically. Keep an eye out for a good deal.

The second ingredient required is alcohol. We’re looking for something with no flavor to it, because we ONLY want to taste the amazingness that is pure, concentrated vanilla. It’s a thing of beauty. Seriously. This means we want CHEAP vodka. I mean that. You want the cheapest vodka you can find. Cheap vodka is disgusting, because it’s basically just alcohol. As the liquor store guy said when I bought it, “That’ll rot your insides.” Perfect. We are going for a high percentage of flavorless alcohol.

Once you have your ingredients, put them together. Beans should be cut into approximately 1″ long pieces. No need to slice them down the middle. It’s pointless for our purposes, and you WILL cut yourself. How many beans should you use? This is the only bit that requires a bit of precision. Legally, you’re required to use about an ounce of beans for every 8 ounces of alcohol for it to be considered actual vanilla extract. I can’t give an exact number of beans to achieve that weight, because they can vary quite a bit in length. I use a kitchen scale, and aim for 15 grams of beans (1/2 ounce) to put in the ADORABLE 4 ounce bottles I have. Can you use less than that? Sure. But then it’s not vanilla extract, it’s just vanilla flavored vodka. Can you use more? I guess, but vanilla beans aren’t the cheapest thing in the world and the alcohol can only soak up so much vanilla. You can also just add a ton of beans to a full bottle of vodka.

Once everything is together, let it sit for a month. It should be shaken periodically (daily is recommended, but I have the worst memory in the world so it winds up being closer to once a week or so). I leave the beans in the bottle until it’s all gone, and shake before I use it each time. When the extract is gone, pop the used up vanilla beans in a small container of sugar and let THAT sit for a while. Again, shake it periodically. It makes a fantastic vanilla sugar that’s just delightful for rolling cookies in, and for sweetening drinks. After that, the beans are pretty useless and can be thrown away.

How easy is that? No excuses now. And yes, I know it’s a little pricey, but if you combine it with a couple of cookie cutters or some cute cupcake liners it would make an awesome Christmas present. Just sayin’. Go try it!

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