Real vanilla extract usually comes in small bottles at surprisingly hefty prices. I assume the scheming vanilla barons of the world can’t trust us with too much of their delicious extract at one time. I use vanilla extract casually in lots of things (in sodas, ciders, and smoothies, just for starters) and thought it would be a good exercise to make my own. It turns out that you can make a self-replenishing bottle of vanilla extract with just vodka, vanilla beans, and patience.
Vanilla beans may seem exotic, but the magic of the internet puts them right at your fingertips. A quick search finds many online vendors, including Amazon. Vanilla beans can be fairly inexpensive in bulk (under a dollar each), so I bought a large bunch and made a massive batch of vanilla extract for holiday gifts (I didn’t want to post about it before and give away any surprises). Along the way, I’ve ended up with plenty of vanilla extract for my own evil purposes.
- Vanilla beans: “Bourbon” or “Bourbon-Madagascar” vanilla beans are the can’t-miss variety for general-purpose vanilla. I recommend using about three beans for every cup of extract you want to bottle.
- Vodka: The alcohol will act as a solvent and draw out the vanilla flavor from the beans. Any vodka will work, so I’d use an inexpensive one or whatever you have in the house.
- Jar or bottle: Pick one with a stopper or a threaded cap; extra points for pretty bottles. I used Modge Podge to glue fabric to the caps and jazz up my bottles.
Vanilla beans are weird, twiggy things. Mine arrived in a vacuum-sealed pouch. To expose the maximum surface area to the vodka, I sliced them down the middle. My bottles were about 12 oz., so I put five beans in each bottle, filled them with vodka, and sealed them to prevent evaporation.
The hard part: Wait two months. The vanilla will steep like tea, with the vodka growing darker and darker as it soaks the vanilla flavor out of the beans. That’s all you have to do. The vodka has now become vanilla extract. Wait longer to make a stronger product.
The beautiful part is that the beans are still in there, full of still-untapped vanilla power. As you use the extract, top it off once in a while with fresh vodka. The beans will continue to exude vanilla flavor for years, restoring the extract over time. Of course, if you use up a lot of the bottle at once, it will take a while for the extract to return to full strength. Also, maybe you should just cut down on your vanilla usage. Some of us are worried about you.
Pat yourself on the back. Now you won’t have to confront the high price of vanilla for years.