I've been making my own vanilla extract for a few years now and have been thinking all year that its something that I should share with my readers, but sometimes I'll admit I like to keep some things to myself. Today is the day to share nicely. I'm not the first blogger to wax poetically about this process, but I'm also certain I won't be the last.
Since starting my batch about 3 years ago, I doubt I'll ever buy a bottle of it again. Its not to say that its better than store bought, but the site of the beans standing at attention in their ever changing brew makes me smile. I also love that in another very small way I've saved 100's of glass jars from being made and then recycled and then made again during the course of a lifetime.
So what exactly is vanilla extract anyways? Well, it's just a simple infusion. Fragrant, heady, aromatic vanilla beans (hopefully), are left to rest in a grain alcohol, which carries the essential oils and therefore flavour with it. The good ones have a short list of ingredients. But you will come across extracts with added colourings, which along with bleached toilet paper, I don't really get, and sometimes sugar, added to enhance flavour. As long as the sugar is low on the ingredient list it's a fine addition, although you won't find it in the homemade version. When you see corn syrup or propylene glycol or any other hard to pronounce words, I would suggest stepping away from the bottle. There's a lot of bad vanilla out there, and I'm not talking about artificial vanilla which at least is upfront about itself. If you've recently had someone bring a bottle back from Mexico, as most of us have, be a little skeptical, right after you thank them profusely for their thoughtful gift*. With weak regulations in the extract industry in Mexico, its easy to end up with something that resembles vanilla while pretending to be the real thing. Although I must stress than not all vanilla bought in Mexico is a fake, but buyer beware.
Making your own vanilla is a fun, easy project that is a great idea for anyone with a source of good but not too pricey vanilla beans. If you live somewhere where your source for beans runs at $5 a bean, this is not the project for you. Best to to spend the money on some great quality extract, it'll be cheaper in the end. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on some discounted dried up beans, this is the perfect remedy for them. Another thing to remember when considering making your own extract is that the finished product will only be as good as the beans. Your vanilla beans should ideally still have a nice fragrant aroma and hopefully a little pliability and you should be confident that even if you get your hands on some dried up premium beans that they haven't sitting on a shelf for a year.
The alcohol carrier that you choose is really based on your own preference. Vodka, since its flavourless, will allow the entire flavours of the vanilla to shine through uninterrupted. Rum, on the other hand, will complement the flavour beautifully since rum and most baked goods are a great match. The rum will stand out though, so keep that in mind. Brandy is another lovely partner for vanilla, but will add a little less obvious flavour than the rum. I have even mixed all 3 depending on my supplies.
This makes a single strength extract. Up the number of beans if you want to make it double strength.
10 vanilla beans : 2 cups vodka, rum or brandy
1. Get yourself a suitable jar for your extract, properly cleaned and dried. I like 500ml/750ml/1l mason jars but a similar size glass jar will work, just be sure that the lid is completely clean. If using a mason/canning jar, I would recommend using the white reusable lids available in the canning section of your supermarket. The metal rings and lids tend to rust in this application. The size of your jar should be tall enough to hold the beans, and have a wide enough mouth to be able to access the beans easily.
2. Using the point of a paring knife, make a shallow slit almost the length of the bean, leaving the ends of the bean uncut. You are not wanting to cut the bean in half, but rather just open it up. If cut completely, the mucous in the walls of beans become more exposed to the extract and makes for a more viscous liquid. If you are planning on using a 500ml jar, I would suggest simply cutting the beans in half, crosswise, and not slitting them at all.
3. Place the beans in your jar, cover with your chosen liquor to cover and put lid on. Shake the jar whenever you think of it, at least once a week, up to every day. Let it brew for 2-3 months before using. You will notice some of the vanilla beans in the bottom of the jar, so be sure to give the jar a little swirl before you measure out your extract to pick up some of those beans in your spoon.
4. Once your extract is ready to go, the beans will stop giving up their flavour, but surprisingly they still have some life in them. The beauty of this recipe is that you get double your money out of the beans. So fish a bean out once in awhile and use it. It will still have seeds to add to custards, poached fruits, drinks etc. The idea is to keep it in the cupboard indefinitely. Whenever you use fresh beans in other recipe go ahead and plop the used, rinsed bean into the mixture.
5. Top it off once in awhile with more liquor, adding about 1/4 more liquid at a time and a new or used bean at the same time. Keep it in your cupboard, adding and subtracting when you think of it. Once you have your core extract, the process becomes a little less of a recipe.
*The Lemon Tart would never want to recommend anything but perfectly gracious and respectful behavior.