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 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.
- Cut vanilla beans in half lengthwise with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors.
- Use a funnel to fill your bottle 3/4 full with alcohol or glycerin.
- Add 3-5 whole vanilla beans to every cup of vodka, bourbon, rum or glycerin.
- Top the bottle off with more alcohol or glycerine until the beans are submerged completely.
- 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).
- Decorate your bottle with your own label, raffia or ribbons. Keeps indefinitely.
- 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.
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