In the nineties, I was into vanilla perfume and body wash—big time. My taste in perfume has since changed, but I still can’t get enough of vanilla’s scent while baking a batch of cookies. After one particularly expensive purchase of vanilla, I decided to look into how to make vanilla extract myself, and as it turns out, it’s an easy task. Homemade vanilla is much less expensive than store-bought products, and really is much tastier, too. Of course, you’re more in control of your pantry’s contents, and it makes a great gift.
A Little Background
Vanilla—the second-most expensive spice in the world after saffron—is produced from a number of different orchids in the genus Vanilla (surprise!). The orchid itself only blooms for one day, and the plants can only live in very wet climates near the equator.
The beans (or pods) of these vining plants are hand-harvested before they ripen. They are then treated with hot water and cured in the sun for a number of months. This method, and the use of vanilla beans, originated in Mexico before moving culture to culture through power struggles and exploration—from Totonac Indians to Aztecs to the Spanish and English.
Originally, vanilla was a special treat for the very rich and was often mixed with cocoa or used in medicine. And as you’re surely aware, its scent is still calming and relaxing today. Although modern Madagascar grows most of it, Thomas Jefferson brought vanilla to the United States in 1789.
As a housekeeping tip, keep in mind spiders don’t like vanilla. If you have a spider problem, put out some beans to scare them away!
How to Make It
To make homemade vanilla, you don’t need much. Get your hands on the highest proof vodka you can find, as well as the best-quality vanilla beans you can procure. Mason jars and glass bottles make great vanilla creation vessels.
I’ve found just chopping the beans into one-inch sections makes vanilla more quickly than the prettier and more popular method of one, long half-cut up the bean. I include about five beans per pint mason jar, filled to the brim with my vodka (you can’t really use too many beans though; it’ll be ready faster and a bit stronger). Be sure the lid is on super tight and shake well. Then, shake again as often as you like and store it in a dark, cool, and dry spot—such as your pantry or a cupboard. I tend to shake mine once every day, which speeds up the extraction process. Nonetheless, many vanilla DIY instructions estimate it takes up to six months for the vanilla to be ready, and to just shake every other week.
I know it’s ready when the vanilla is the same color as its store-bought counterpart, so I keep some around just for comparison’s sake. Give your new vanilla a taste and compare it to your store-bought bottle. I find neither to be particularly wonderful by themselves, but your homemade stuff will be a perfect supplement, I promise!
How to Store It
Your awesome, homemade vanilla will be just fine in the clear mason jar you made it in. However, the tradition is to store vanilla in amber or opaque bottles. These are used so that it’s not damaged by sunlight; after all, it’s a really important member of your kitchen. Mine is always in a dark cupboard unless I’m baking, so I don’t really worry about it. Some people like to strain out their beans and the flecks of seeds out of their extract. You should do this if you don’t use the vanilla within a year or so, as these can become stale and eventually inedible.
I make a lot of cookies, though, and a pint won’t last a year in my house. These leftovers often make the vanilla stronger as it’s stored. Another great idea is to store these spent vanilla pods in sugar for a couple weeks to craft vanilla sugar, which I’m told is especially good in coffee.
I have been doing this for a few years, and this is what’s worked for me. However, I’ve seen recipes that say to use high quality vodka with 70 to 85 percent proof, remove the seeds from pods, and put them in the bottle together. There are many approaches and methods. If you can’t get enough vanilla while baking, try a vanilla-scented product in the shower, like Tom’s of Maine’s Vanilla Spice Body Wash.
How will you use your vanilla at home?
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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