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How to Make Vanilla Extract (With or Without Alcohol)

How to Make Vanilla Extract (With or Without Alcohol)

The vanilla extract you can buy at the store often contains sugar, additives and flavorings you don’t really need or want. And most varieties are also made with alcohol, which might be a problem for some people.

In contrast, homemade vanilla extract has all the depth of flavor and high quality ingredients you would expect from a homemade product. Here’s how to make vanilla extract at home—with or without alcohol. And if you start a batch now, it will be ready in time for holiday gift giving!

vanilla-in-bottlesVanilla History and Culture

Vanilla is native to Mexico. Along with other plunder he stole from the Aztecs during the Conquest, Hernán Cortez took cacao beans and vanilla pods back to Spain, and the rest is history.

Vanilla pods, commonly called vanilla beans, are the fruit of the vanilla orchid—the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit. Because the Mexican Melipona bee is the sole natural pollinator of the vanilla orchid, vanilla needs assistance in order to produce fruit.

Today, vanilla orchids are grown in Mexico, the Bourbon Islands, Tahiti, Indonesia, India, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea. They are painstakingly hand pollinated, carefully hand harvested daily, and then hand cured by farmers in a process that takes anywhere from 13 to 14 weeks.

No wonder vanilla is so expensive! But if you make your own vanilla extract, you can save a lot of money without compromising on flavor and quality.

This recipe is for making vanilla extract with or without alcohol. Traditionally, it is made with alcohol—usually a flavorless alcohol such as vodka or grain alcohol—but it can also be made without the booze by using glycerin.

Technically, glycerin is an alcohol too, which is why it works to make the extract. Food-grade glycerin (or glycerol) is a sugar alcohol derived from plants, similar to xylitol or erythritol, so it will impart a sweet flavor as well as a few carbohydrate calories to your extract that vodka or other alcohols will not.

If you put your homemade vanilla extract into nice looking bottles (perhaps wrapped in raffia ribbon), it makes a lovely holiday gift. Just be sure to start brewing your extract at least three months in advance so it is ready for the gift-giving season.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (With or Without Alcohol)
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Ingredients
  1. 1 glass swing top or other tall bottle (more if you are making gifts) (where to find)
  2. 8 ounces vodka, rum or bourbon (vodka is traditional)
  3. OR
  4. 8 ounces food-grade glycerin (non-alcoholic version) (where to find)
  5. 3-5 whole vanilla beans per 8 ounces of liquid (where to find)
Instructions
  1. Cut vanilla beans in half lengthwise with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors.
  2. Use a funnel to fill your bottle 3/4 full with alcohol or glycerin.
  3. Add 3-5 whole vanilla beans to every cup of vodka, bourbon, rum or glycerin.
  4. Top the bottle off with more alcohol or glycerine until the beans are submerged completely.
  5. Close the bottle tightly and allow the vanilla to sit in a cool dark place for at least 3-6 months (the longer the better).
  6. Decorate your bottle with your own label, raffia or ribbons. Keeps indefinitely.
Notes
  1. The alcohol you choose does not have to be fancy or expensive at all. It is simply a solvent to extract the vanilla goodness. The alcohol will evaporate off when you cook or bake with your vanilla anyway.
Small Footprint Family http://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/
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About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

27 Comments

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  • Hi.I have bought a pocket of vanilla beans that I supposed had 3 beans in it now that I got my purchase by post I see that there is only one bean in the pocket!!!
    Can I make vanilla extract with only one bean? How much vodka should I use?

    • You might be able to make a small bottle with one bean. You’ll probably have to cut the bean to fit into such a small bottle, but just divide the recipe proportions to fit your needs.

  • To make a gluten free version of the alcohol-based vanilla extract, I use Tito’s vodka. For anyone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity it is important to avoid vanilla purchased in the grocery store.

  • In order to make it on large scale, can I use a tub making sure that all vanilla is completely dipped into liquid? or otherwise, I can use the gallon bottle of glycerin while multiplying the quantity of vanilla pods?

  • Is it necessary that we use glass bottle only? Can I use plastic bottle instead? On the other hand, is there another substitute for glycerin (like lets say rose water)? Its not available around me and I checked on ebay, most of em are not shipping to my area and if anyone does, shipping charge is 10x of the price of product.

    • Glycerin or food grade alcohol are what will best extract the vanilla flavor from the beans. There are links to find glycerin in the recipe, if needed. Rose water will probably not work well, and will change the flavor, but give it a try. I would definitely use glass, not plastic. A recycled jar from the kitchen will work just fine.

  • I am new to making extracts and I love the idea of alcohol free. I found the glycerin on Amazon from your link, is there a certain brand you like the best?

    Also could you use this to make mint extract in the same idea?

  • Ok..I’m making it with the glycerin. Since the glycerin is thick, unlike the vodka, I’m assuming the finished product will be thick too? Do you know if anyone has ever mentioned this concern or not? Will the glycerin-vanilla be usable in the same way as the vodka vanilla?

    • Food grade glycerin should not be that thick, unlike the glycerin used for soap-making, for example. If needed, you can dilute a bit with water before brewing.

  • When you run out could you refill the bottle with more alcohol or do you need to toss beans and start anew?

    • I spoke to a vanilla grower in Hawaii (yes they do grow vanilla and cacao on the Big Island) and he said that if you make a large batch like 1 quart or more and never use more than. Third of it at a time, you can top off the alcohol, let it age again and renew your extract in this fashion for 7-8 years before needing to replace the beans.

  • I bought the vanilla beans awhile ago I just didn’t like the idea of the alcohol. Thanks so much for showing that there is another option. I am so excited to make this for myself and for Christmas gifts. Girl you rock! 🙂

  • Hi, I received some homemade vanilla essence as a gift and have become totally hooked! The smell of it was beautiful. Can’t wait to use this recipe to make my own gifts. Thanks.

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