The idea of a DIY vanilla extract has been floating around the food blog world for a little while. When I first read about the process, the instructions seemed so fastidious that I shrugged and clicked away. (This is, in passing, one of the challenges the recipe writer faces: providing the necessary dose of guidance, but avoiding instruction overload.)
Still, I was increasingly bothered by the imbalance between the wowing qualities of the vanilla beans I’d splurged on, and the dullness of the store-bought vanilla extract I had on hand. So, why not use the former to create a better version of the latter?
Perhaps some of you will wonder, if I have fresh vanilla beans, why use extract at all? And the answer is that they don’t serve the same purpose. Fresh beans need to be steeped in a liquid ingredient (milk, cream, syrup…) to release their flavor, so they can only be used in recipes that call for such an ingredient, like sauces, ice creams, or custards. Vanilla extract, on the other hand, is ready-to-use and can be added directly, without steeping, to cake batters, cookie doughs, cocktails, etc.
And really, as I found out when I looked into it with a little more attention, making your own extract could not be simpler: place vanilla beans in a jar, fill with liquor, close, shake, and wait. The process is even simpler than preserving your own lemons and you’ll likely wonder, as I did, what took you so long.
Vodka is often mentioned as the ideal liquor for this because its neutral flavor won’t overshadow that of the vanilla, but I opted to use rum, which I like to use in my baking (canelés, crêpes and yogurt cake without rum are like a kiss without a mustache*) and find a perfect match to vanilla. I love the complexity of the resulting extract, but you can use whatever liquor you prefer, provided it is about 40% alcohol.
Commercial vanilla extract is generally sweetened, too, but I see no reason to make the process more complex, and the quantities of extract used in most recipes are so small that it’s unnecessary to make up for the difference in sugar.
And of course, need I mention that homemade vanilla extract makes a great gift for the food enthusiast?
* “Like a kiss without a mustache” is a literal translation of comme un baiser sans moustache, a French idiom that means that one thing is pointless without the other. Similar, but less perky: comme un violon sans cordes (like a violin without strings) or comme une soupe sans sel (like soup without salt).
Homemade Vanilla Extract
- 3 medium vanilla beans, or 1 1/2 fat ones
- 1 cup rum or vodka
Have ready a 1-cup glass jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid; I used an empty (and clean, obviously) jar of jam. Pour boiling water into it, let rest for 10 minutes to sterilize, and pour out the water.
Using a sharp knife, slice the beans open lengthwise to expose the seeds. Tuck the beans in the jar and fill with liquor. Close the jar, shake it a few times, and place it in a cool, dark cabinet; you may have to whisper a few words of reassurance if the jar is, understandably, a little frightened.
Let the jar rest in there for 8 weeks, shaking it again once or twice a week, or whenever you remember to. The mixture will get darker and darker over time.
You can start using your extract by the end of the eighth week. Use however much you need, and when you notice that you’re running a little low — that you’ve used, say, 20% of the extract — top it off with more liquor (preferably of the same type) and shake again.
And every once in a while, when you’re using a fresh bean in a recipe, you can add the empty pod (rinsed off and dried if it’s been steeped in milk or cream) to the jar**.
If you continue to “feed” it this way, the extract will keep forever; just remove some of the older beans if the jar becomes too crowded.
** Remember that those empty pods can also be placed in your sugar jar, olive oil bottle, or tea tin to flavor them, too.