Twice as Tasty

Homemade Vanilla Extract

If you start homemade vanilla extract in spring, it will be ready in time for holiday baking

By Julie Laing
Photo by Julie Laing.

Each May, I consider my vanilla extract supply. Vanilla extract is among the easiest infusions you can make: put skinny, dark and slightly oily beans in a jar, add alcohol – and wait. The extract takes six months to reach peak flavor, so a spring batch is ready by November, in time for the vanilla wafers in my family’s traditional Chocolate Rum Balls.

You’ve likely heard why you should choose pure vanilla extract, whose only ingredients should be vanilla bean and alcohol, over imitation, with vanillin flavoring usually manufactured from a petroleum-based substance. Homemade vanilla extract improves the natural flavor further with a long infusion, one some companies skip by adding corn syrup or sugar to their pure extract.

I started making vanilla extract when I was given a bag of vanilla beans – a gift indeed when you look at the single-bean cost. Whole vanilla beans kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark place can last two years or longer. Letting them air out for a few minutes every month or so and then repacking the container helps them remain mold free.

In the long run, it’s worth buying vanilla beans in bulk to use whole, for their miniscule seeds (dubbed vanilla caviar) and as homemade extract. It’s easiest to scrape seeds from dry-stored vanilla beans. But instead of returning scraped pods to the airtight container, I store them in alcohol, letting them become part of vanilla extract.

The pure vanilla extract standard is about 1 ounce of vanilla bean per cup of liquor that’s 35% alcohol by volume, so I recommend starting your batch there. But you can add more beans, including seed-scraped pods as you generate them, and use stronger alcohol for more robust extract. I like vodka for its clean taste, but rum and bourbon are popular alternatives.

Most vanilla extraction happens in the first two months, but leaving the beans for six months stabilizes and mellows the infusion. Those beans still have enough flavor that you can strain the liquid into a bottle and top off the original jar of beans with vodka for a second batch. Even after a second round of extract, enough flavor remains to air-dry the beans and bury them in sugar for a couple of weeks, releasing vanilla a third time into the granules. I’ve also found that I when I decant the extract in November, I can reuse the whole vodka-stored beans in Vanilla Bean Cookies.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Makes about 1/2 cup

1/2 ounce vanilla beans (3 to 4 whole beans)

4 ounces vodka (35% ABV or higher)

Add the whole vanilla beans, or the equivalent weight of scraped vanilla bean pods or pieces, to a 12-ounce jar. Pour in the vodka, submerging the beans; screw on a lid and shake. Set the jar in a cool, dark place, shaking it every week or so. Store the infusion for at least two and ideally up to six months, until the liquid is dark, fragrant and slightly thickened.

Julie Laing is a Bigfork-based cookbook author and food blogger at TwiceAsTasty.com.