Okay. So making vanilla is really easy. Get some vanilla beans and pour some alcohol over it and boom- you have vanilla extract. However, remember in my last post when I talked about an obsession for creating the best? I spent the whole day researching vanilla. Besides realizing there is a serious lack of information about making vanilla extract safely on most blogs, I learned some really interesting facts about vanilla from the Nielsen-Massey company. The video below gives a short history about the vanilla bean that I found absolutely fascinating. For a more in-depth history, read Vanilla’s Origins.
Even though Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia Andrews) is used all over the world, there are only a few regions of the world where it is able to grow and thrive.
The three most common vanilla-growing regions are Mexico, Madagascar, and Tahiti. Just as coffee beans and cocoa beans lend different flavor profiles depending on the region they are grown, so does the vanilla bean.
Extract made from Mexican vanilla beans have more of a creamy, sweet, and spicy flavor profile. Tahitian Extract lends more anise-like tasting notes with fruity and floral undertones. Madagascar Extract tends to have more of a creamy and sweet taste with a velvety finish.
The final differences affecting the flavor profile include the species of vanilla and the curing process. Madagascar farmers use a different curing process and Tahitian farmers tend to use the Vanilla tahitensis Moore, a hybrid of two vanilla species.
I learned there are Grade A vanilla beans and Grade B vanilla beans. Grade A beans, commonly called prime or gourmet, look pretty and have a higher moisture content ranging somewhere between 30-35%. Grade A beans are used in cooking.
Grade B beans, referred to as extract beans, aren’t as “pretty” and have a lower moisture content ranging between 15-25%.
For the purpose of making extract, Grade B beans are actually great. Why? Because they have less water. This is a good thing. Less water will end up in your extract and they do not cost as much as Grade A beans.
And lastly, I learned there are different strengths of vanilla. You can buy single-strength or double strength vanilla, which you probably guessed correctly, refers to the concentration of vanilla flavor.
According to FDA guidelines (this applies to the vanilla manufacturers), vanilla extract should be:
70% proof/35% alcohol
single-strength extract should be 13.35oz of bean per gallon of liquid solvent
double strength extract should be 26.70 oz – it is adjusted in the final stages of the manufacturing process
In layman terms, you want at least 6 whole vanilla beans to make one cup (8 oz/236.58 ml) of vanilla. If you use fewer beans, then you are essentially making vanilla flavored booze. Even then, that is barely meeting the legal requirement of a single strength vanilla extract.
Sadly, the FDA does not monitor the quality of beans, just the weight. The solution is to either buy vanilla beans from a reputable source so you can try your hand at making your own extract or buy a high quality, trusted vanilla extract brand! Obviously, I am a fan of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla. If you haven’t tried their Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract, Tahitian Vanilla Extract, or Mexican Vanilla Extract, you really should.
Originally I was going to make a bourbon, a rum, and a vodka based extract so I could test the flavor differences at the end. (I’m guessing most brands use vodka as it is more neutral than the other options, but I’m a curious cat. I want to taste the differences in the extracts myself and decide what flavor profiles I like best!) However, based on the number of beans I bought + alcohol cost, I ended up only making a rum and a vodka based extract.
I purchased one vanilla extract kit from Williams-Sonoma that came with 3 Madagascar beans a while ago. My other Madagascar beans and 2 Nocturne 200ml bottles are from Oil and Vinegar.
I’m sure the lady at the ABC store thought I was crazy. I spent almost 2 hours in there googling reviews all the different brands of vodka/rum. I love cooking with wine and making desserts with liquor, but drinking it is not my thing. Therefore my knowledge in this department is severely lacking. I ended up going with the 200ml bottle of Grey Goose Vodka and the 12 year Appleton Estate rum based on price and user reviews. If anyone can offer any input in this area, it will be welcomed.
DIY Vanilla Extract
Yields 1 200ml bottle of vodka based vanilla extract and 1 200ml bottle of rum based extract.
2 2ooml bottles Brown bottles are actually recommended. I used clear glass bottles because I wanted to see the color change. I am also storing them properly in a dark cupboard, away from sunlight, and have even covered the corks with parafilm. However, once the extraction process is finished, I plan on transferring them to dark brown bottles with screw caps. Please, DO NOT USE PLASTIC BOTTLES. The organic gases given off by the plastic itself can taint your extract. Why waste the time, money, and quality of your extract by using a plastic bottle? Just don’t.
16-20 Grade B vanilla beans (I used 7 1/2 Madagascar beans per bottle because that is what I had on hand. Feel free to use more if you want)
Alcohol– Vodka, Rum, Bourbon, or Brandy. I used Grey Goose Vodka and Appleton Estate 12 Year Rum.
Split beans with a knife- People debate whether this step is necessary. I’m leaving it up to you. I split the vanilla beans because I wanted to.
Then cut beans in half. Place at least 8 beans in each clean bottle. Cutting the beans in half ensures they will be fully submerged when you add the alcohol. Feel free to cut the beans into thirds or quarters depending on the height of your bottle.
Cover with alcohol. I used a funnel so I wouldn’t make a mess. Again, you want the beans to be FULLY submerged. *****Vanilla pods exposed to air will develop a fungus.******
You can use the extract at 6 weeks but I wouldn’t. It gets better with age. The 4-6 week extract will still have an intense alcohol aroma. Over time, it will mellow out and you won’t need to add any sweeteners. I plan on waiting 6 months.
Also, be sure to frequently give the bottle a shake during the first 4 weeks. Once the extraction process is finished, I will filter the extract using a coffee filter. I plan on first dampening the filter with vodka (I had a small amount left over) so the fibers don’t soak up my extract! I will then store it in a dark brown bottle.
I created my own labels so I could remember which bottle contained rum and which bottle contained vodka. I included the bottle date because, let’s be real, six months from now I will not remember the exact date I bottled it. I’m so excited! I can’t wait for it to be done! I am a nerd/crazy person. I accept it. 🙂
I am by no means an expert. The information I am sharing with you is as accurate as possible based on the resources I found. Please correct or add any information in the comment section. The sites I used are: