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Why Make Homemade Vanilla Extract?

Homemade Vanilla Extract — Learning how to make vanilla extract at home couldn’t be easier! You need just two ingredients and lots of patience. Homemade vanilla is worth the wait, though!

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Why Make Homemade Vanilla Extract?

I love the scent of vanilla in anything from candles to soap, and the flavor of vanilla in baked goods and desserts is second to none. If a recipe calls for one teaspoon vanilla extract, I use at least two; but likely more and use a slow, heavy hand when pouring.

All that pouring makes my food taste amazing, but my wallet doesn’t like it. Store-bought pure vanilla extract is pricey and I can make extremely fast work of a two- or four-ounce bottle that sells for $8.99 to $10.99, and up. Two ounces, that’s for one batch of cookies, right?

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Homemade vanilla extract saves money, and even if it didn’t, when it comes to taste and flavor, there is just no comparison. It’s like making Homemade Peanut Butter. Price per ounce not withstanding, the taste and flavor of homemade simply can’t be beat.

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When it comes right down to it, homemade everything is almost always better than store bought, and vanilla extract is no exception. I once briefly mentioned that vanilla extract is nearly effortless to make and had quite a few people comment who were surprised by how easy it is or how it’s created. It’s the non-work DIY project, actually.

The only thing special that’s required when making vanilla extract is patience. It won’t be ready for at least six to eight weeks, and if you have the time, longer is fine (it’s preferred actually). If the vanilla beans are left in the jar, the flavor will continue to evolve and mature.

Since I have a steady and abundant supply of rich, intense, and delightful tasting vanilla extract, I don’t feel bad about adding two tablespoons to a batch of cookies. Or more. Sticking my nose in this jar and just breathing in the incredibly smooth, fragrant aroma is intoxicating. You’ll never go back to store-bought after making your own!

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What’s in Vanilla Extract? 

When making vanilla extract, you’ll need vanilla beans and some kind of alcohol. Vanilla beans hail from Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti, India, Indonesia, Tonga and a handful of other countries. The country of origin of the bean impacts the final flavor of the vanilla extract, but like coffee, unless you have a supersonic palate, discerning a Madagascar bean from an Indian bean is like discerning a cup of Kenyan coffee from a cup of Colombian coffee — easier said than done for the average person.

Just select a bean that sounds good to you. There are no wrong choices here.

When selecting beans, they should be soft, pliable, tender, and flexible. Oily is good and beans that are dried out, hard, have mold on them, or look like dried out sticks should be avoided.

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Next, you need alcohol (at least 35% by volume) in order to extract the vanilla from the vanilla beans, thus the name, vanilla extract. I use the same vodka that I’d use in a cocktail rather than frat house bargain vodka that produces hangovers.

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Happened to be on sale at the grocery store the week I started this batch of homemade vanilla extract and was $13.99 for a 750ml bottle (about 25 ounces). There are times I have paid $13.99 for a four-ounce bottle of vanilla; do that bad math. And then make your own vanilla.

Bourbon, rum, or brandy may be used instead of vodka. Vodka produces a cleaner and lighter vanilla extract; bourbon produces a heavier, more complex and moodier, if you will, type of extract. Dark rum, light rum, spiced rum, or brandy will all effect the taste of the final extract compared to vodka, which imparts almost none.

In certain chocolate-based recipes, such as brownies or chocolate cake, bourbon-based vanilla is nice and complements the chocolate, but in general, and for most baking, vodka-based vanilla extract is my preference.

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How to Make Vanilla Extract

To make vanilla extract from scratch, you’ll need a glass jar that seals in which to make it. The jar doesn’t have to be fancy — any clean glass jar with a lid will do. This 8.5-ounce swing top bottle is perfect for the job and I added five Mexican Grade B Vanilla Beans to it and topped off with one cup (8 ounces) of vodka and sealed it off.

The rule of thumb is 5 vanilla beans per 1 cup vodka.

I figured as long as this was a two-month project, I may as well extract in bulk. Into a 12-ounce Ball glass jar, the same type you’d use for canning and available from most any grocery store, I added five Mexican Grade B Vanilla Beans. The batch in my swing top bottle has a slightly higher ratio of beans to liquid, and the resulting extract is just a bit more intensely-flavored.

I recommend not skimping when adding beans, and although they can seem expensive, you’ll thank yourself later for not skimping when the taste of your finished extract is robust and flavorful. Plus, think of all the money you’re saving already by making it at home.

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Before placing the vanilla beans in the jar, slice each bean in half lengthwise with a sharp paring knife, stopping one inch before one of the ends so the bean doesn’t split in half, not that it really matters if it would. Some people scrape the seeds from the inside of the beans, then add the scrapings and beans separately into the jar, but I don’t bother. I simply slice the beans in half and place them into the jar.

Fill up the jars 95% of the way full with vodka, seal, shake for about thirty seconds, and place them in a quiet corner on your countertop, on a shelf, or somewhere that they can just be. For a few months.

Once a week or so, twice if I remember, I give the jars a good 10-second, vigorous shake. Other than a few shakes here and there, you don’t have to do anything other than just wait and let the booze do its extraction work to the beans.

Over time, the taste of the alcohol fades and the taste of vanilla replaces the alcohol. After the months have passed, start using the vanilla extract in any recipe you’d normally use it in. Simple as that.

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Does Vanilla Extract Expire? 

If properly stored in a cool, dark place, homemade vanilla extract will last pretty much forever! Like I already explained, you’ll need to take the vanilla beans out at some point, but the remaining extract will last for a long time.

Do I Have to Use Alcohol? 

Yes, I’ve found that unflavored vodka, rum, or bourbon works best when making vanilla extract. There are recipes for alcohol-free vanilla online, but they typically use glycerin and result in a much weaker flavor that I don’t like.

Does it Matter What Type of Vanilla Bean I Use? 

No, as long as your beans aren’t dried out or moldy, you can use any type of vanilla bean you’d like. Just remember to buy enough to flavor your vanilla extract properly.

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Tips for Making Vanilla Extract

Some people strain their vanilla extract before using it because they don’t want the teeny tiny little seeds in their food, but seeing those real vanilla bean flecks and seeds is what I want and desire. To strain those away would be like taking silver polish to a 100 year old silver spoon with a beautiful patina or painting over antique wood; not something I would ever do.

I want the rustic character, the homemade and charming aspect of seeing flecks of vanilla beans in the cookies I bake with this vanilla. Not to mention, those seeds and flecks are little flavor bombs that I’d never strain away.

As I use the vanilla extract, I top it off with more vodka to allow the extraction cycle to continue, and after 6 months or so I replace the beans with new ones so that fragrant, flavorful, and robust vanilla extract is produced. The beans will last quite a long time, but nothing lasts forever so you’ll need to replace the beans as necessary, which will depend on how much of a vanilla extract fiend you are.

Used vanilla beans, past their prime for making extract, can be dried out, and added to a bag of sugar to produce vanilla-scented sugar. Depending on how much ‘life’ the beans had in them will dictate how fragrant the sugar becomes. Vanilla sugar is nice to bake with and adds extra vanilla oomph to recipes.