Sunday, February 10

Makin' Homemade Vanilla Extract

I am so excited!!  I am stepping out into new territory today--out of the realm of store-bought vanilla extract and into the fragrant world of homemade vanilla extract.  I've been doing a lot of research, and it just seemed like a really neat thing to try.  After poring over pages across the vast Internet plane, I found a great website with a lot of information about different types of beans, and based on that information, I chose three different kinds that I will be using in my vanilla extract: Madagascar, which is the most common bean, described as having "a sweet, buttery aroma", Indian, "bold, dark, tones of smoke and chocolate", and Bourbon, "smooth and creamy, excellent for ice cream, gelato and warm drinks".  Can you imagine all of those qualities floating around and melding together in a bottle over several months?  Soon, they will be like liquid gold in my pantry cabinet.  Now can you see why I'm excited?  This is going to make all of my baked goods go from yummy to OH MY GOSH YOU MADE THAT??  THAT'S LIKE HEAVEN IN MY MOUTH!!  At least, that's what I imagine will be the reaction to every cake, cookie, brownie, and candy that I make for the rest of my life.  They will hail me as queen of the baking world, and somewhere, a statue will be erected in my honor of a giant vanilla bean, because of the awesomeness of my homemade vanilla extract.  Ha, and that's just a little peek into the world in my head :).

So, you are probably wondering, "How does one make a concoction of vanilla extract?"  I thought you'd never ask!  Let's get started.

Here is what you need:
  •  8 oz. vodka--doesn't have to be really high quality, but honestly, the higher quality ingredients that are used, the better quality of the finished product.  It should be at least 35% alcohol (40% is better, and common for vodka).  Don't use a higher concentration than 40% alcohol.  You want a vodka that has no flavor or odor.  Bourbon and rum can also be used, but it will add additional flavor to the vanilla extract.
  • Minimum of five Grade B vanilla beans (here is where you can mix flavors to make it the best!).  You can use the higher priced top-grade beans, but the B grade are sold specifically for making extract.  They don't look as good as the top-grade beans, but are of the same flavor quality.
  • A 10-12 oz. size bottle or jar for soaking your beans and vodka, with a tight-fitting lid.
  • A cool, dark place.
  • Time.  Lots and lots of time.
I'm going to make four 8 oz. batches of vanilla in two full-sized canning jars.  I plan to use the same mixture of full vanilla beans in each batch, and divide up the extra vanilla beans evenly and then add the pieces to the jars.

Here's what you do:
First, successfully locate the vodka.  My husband and I found out that the local grocery stores only carry diluted vodka, 21% alcohol.  That just wouldn't do.  So we drove around town trying to find a real liquor store (we haven't ever needed a liquor store here...we can usually get whatever adult beverages we wanted at the grocery stores.  This was a memory exercise more than anything!).  Once you find your vodka, you'll want to measure it out and pour it in a clean container.  Make sure that the container is big enough to submerge your beans completely.  If they are out of the liquid, the exposed part will dry out.

With a sharp paring knife, split the bean pod down the middle, but don't cut through the other side.  You just want to expose the beans and insides to the liquid.  Some people suggest scraping out the stuff inside of the pod, then chopping everything up and putting it in the alcohol, but it seems unnecessary-really, the beans will soak for so long that the liquid will thoroughly penetrate the bean, and the flavor will be extracted regardless.  You can cut the beans to fit and stay submerged in the jar, though, which is why I cut my beans in half.
15 Madagascar B-grade beans.  They are dried more than top-grade beans, but you get the same effect with vanilla extract using these beans.
The fine, delicious, fragrant insides of the pods.
These are the Indian vanilla beans--notice the difference in appearance between these and the B-grade beans.
And these are the Bourbon vanilla beans...they were by far the plumpest beans of the three I purchased.  They had a tacky, almost licorice-type feel to them when I took them from the package.
Once you've split the beans, place them into the liquor--again, making sure that the beans are completely submerged--and shake the jar a bit.  Now, set the jar in a cool, dark place and let it sit!  Shake it once a week.  Feel free to smell it every now and again.  The extract should sit and steep for at least six weeks.  Some sites recommend letting it sit for six months!  I'd say that six months is extreme, but six weeks is too short.  I'm going to let my jars sit for at least two months, and then test.  I'm also labeling the jars with the date that I made them, so that I have a reference.
Action shot!
These are food-grade sticker labels that can be found with canning supplies at the store.  They wash off very easily.
You can see that the liquid is already starting to change color as the flavor is being extracted!
After you have let your beans sit for months, use a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth and strain the liquid.  Do this until you no longer see bits of the beans in the extract (I will drain the strained extract into a clear pitcher, so that I can see the bits).  If you are just keeping it for yourself, you can put it in whatever container you have, though I wouldn't recommend plastic, as certain plastics can leech a plastic-y flavor into your extract.  If you use clear jars/containers, store it in a dark place.  If you purchase cobalt or brown glass bottles, which is what I'll do, you don't have to worry about keeping it in a dark place, because the cobalt and brown bottles will filter out UV light.  I plan to keep some for myself and give some away as gifts, and I will be purchasing the cobalt bottles.  The extract will last indefinitely--a bonus effect of the alcohol.

If you're like me, you wonder a lot about random topics.  In my researching ways to make homemade vanilla extract, I couldn't help but wonder when someone realized that they could extract the flavor of the vanilla from these beans.  Because they are not native to our part of the world, it meant that shipping merchants must have introduced them to us here in the states, but when?  I know that in our cooking at the living history farm, we use rose water for flavoring, and rose water is commonly specified in many mid-19th century recipe that I've seen.  So when was the U.S. introduced to this nectar?  According to the Southborough Historical Society website, in Southbourough, Massachusetts, a chemist/druggist named Joseph Burnett actually created the extract in the 1840s for a woman who had lived in Paris before moving back to the States.  Chefs had used it there, but not in a precise way, to get the vanilla flavor in some of their dishes.  Here is the information quoted from the historical society's webpage:

“In 1847 a [prominent] lady [wife of a wealthy Boston manufacturer] who had lived some years in France, entered the store of Joseph Burnett, the Boston chemist.  She said she was very anxious to procure a vanilla flavor for her creams, sauces and desserts, such as she had been getting in Paris. 

At that time the only extract of any kind in this country for flavoring purposes was a cheap extract of lemon.  A few French chefs used the vanilla bean itself.  This was the clumsy, unsanitary and inconvenient way these chefs got their vanilla flavoring; they would purchase one or two vanilla beans, cut them up and put them in a linen bag, ready to use like a tea ball, to flavor whatever was required.  The results from this tedious, inexact method of extracting the flavor were of course very unsatisfactory.  When the bag was first used it would give the delicious flavor of pure vanilla, but afterwards, when it became diluted, the taste was weak and unpalatable. It was never uniform in strength or flavor.  It was always expensive because the full rich flavor could never be thoroughly extracted.

Mr. Burnett listened to the lady's description of the flavoring she wanted.  This extraordinary request challenged Mr. Burnett’s resourcefulness.  A man ahead of his time, he believed in supplying what his customers needed, if he could.  He busied himself in his laboratory.  He [went to New York] and bought a pound of the very best vanilla beans he could procure [for $3.50] and extracted the rare, delicate flavor of which she spoke, and after long, careful experiments, when he was satisfied with its quality, he made the first Vanilla Extract that was ever sold in this country.  The lady was so pleased she urged him to make more, promising to take her supplies of it from him and to introduce it to her aristocratic friends.  This was the beginning of Vanilla and other extracts in this country.”

To read the full story, here is the page link: Southbourough Historical Society

There.  Now you can go on Jeopardy! and win the final question.  I always feel smart when I can answer the Final Jeopardy! question.

Here is the post for straining and bottling the extract after it's been steeping for a few months: Vanilla Extract After Three Months.

I'm not endorsing or being sponsored by anyone to do this post.  That being said, here is the store that I purchased my beans from: .  You don't have to buy from them--you can find vanilla beans online at several places, like Amazon, Rose Mountain Herbs, and Amadeus Vanilla Beans.  Same thing with the bottles.  Do some shopping online and find out what best fits your needs.  Then order your beans and make yo'self some homemade vanilla goodness!


  1. I definitely want to try this as soon as I can find some inexpensive vanilla beans. Great post!

    Visiting from the Barn Hop.

  2. Hi Nancy! Thanks for visiting. When I got my beans from the Beanilla website, they offered free shipping for the beans that didn't ship in glass vials. That's why I went through them. To me, their prices were pretty reasonable. Good luck!

  3. A friend of mine made vanilla & was a good enough friend to give me a bottle. It turned out great. Good luck!

  4. I really like how you broke the steps up about how you made your homemade vanilla. I have made this once before but I actually have never blogged about it....the thing I found most interesting is that the jar of vanilla I made lasted for a VERY long time! I also did not know their were different grades of the beans I have just gotten mine at Costco in the past thanks so much for sharing!

  5. By the way in addition to my earlier comment (I am so distracted tonight) I am so glad you linked up to "The Ole' Saturday Homesteading Trading Post" blog hop a place where homesteaders can learn from one another and just chat! So glad you stopped in and linked up and hope you join us next week!


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