Make-It-At-Home Series : Vanilla Extract (GF, V)
Vanilla must the most often used flavouring around the world when it comes to baking. Did you know that the vanilla pod is the fruit of an orchid? And that the pods are picked green and the processing of it into the dark brown vanilla bean is time consuming and labour intensive? This is what makes vanilla the second most expensive spice after saffron.
It’s probably bad form for someone who tries to avoid processed foodstuff, and someone who usually cooks from scratch (as much as one can in today’s world), and sis committed to blogging about it to make this admission. I will however, admit to using “fake” vanilla extract/ essence for the longest time, because I just didn’t know any different. I used to buy it off the supermarket shelf because that was all I could find; though I would stick to a particular brand I felt was the best.
I knew that this was not the real thing as it was labelled “Artificial Vanilla Flavouring Agent” and the label further informed me that it contained water, propylene glycol, nature identical flavouring substances, artificial flavouring substances, and caramel colour!! Still, it was all I had and I made do with it.
I never knew one could easily make this at home and it never occurred to me to search out if I could make it myself. Then a good friend and fellow blogger, Nivedita came visiting from the US and one of the gifts she brought me was a small jar of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean paste. A whiff of that stuff, and I was converted. I stretched the contents of that jar as far as I could, but it did get over one day.
That’s when I went searching the internet and discovered that I could make my Vanilla extract at home and all I needed were a few Vanilla beans, some alcohol to extract the vanilla, and a knife! Vanilla beans are grown in India, and are easy enough to source as was the alcohol, vodka in my case. The quality of Vanilla extract depends on the quality of the beans, so even if you don’t want to spend a lot on the best beans out there, that’s fine as long as you don’t buy the cheapest of the lot.
There are however many different kinds of vanilla beans available , so which ones are the best to use? I guess, for the home bakers, it would come down to affordability. As I understand it, various varieties of Vanilla beans just give different flavour to the extract and it is apparently best to use “extract grade” beans which have a lower moisture content. Me, I just use what I can get!
When it comes to the alcohol, it apparently doesn’t really matter so you can save some money here and buy the cheaper brands. I bought the cheapest I could find, which was 180ml bottles of 75 proof Romanov Vodka. Now, here is the caveat… we don't drink so I don't really know the quality of the vodka I bought vs. the other kinds, so if you know vodka better you may have more of a preference. Some people use bourbon, brandy or rum as the alcohol base but it really doesn’t matter much, unless you have a preference for one over the other.
If you want to do the math, here’s how it worked for me. The last time I bought the fake Vanilla extract, it cost under Rs.300 for a 500ml bottle (under $5). The vodka cost me about Rs.50 for 180ml (less than $1) and about Rs.100 for a pack of 3 Vanilla beans ($1.50). About 3 to 4 beans should be good for a 180ml bottle of vodka.
That works out to about Rs.450 for 540ml of the real Vanilla extract (about $8) against about Rs.300 (under $5) for the fake stuff! All it takes to make your own Vanilla extract is slitting the vanilla pods, putting them into the bottles of vodka, closing the lids to make it all airtight and then leaving it to sit in a cool dark corner for about a month at least, while the alcohol and the Vanilla beans do their stuff. That’s it! Do you need any more convincing to make your own extract?
Home-made Vanilla extract also makes wonderful gifts to give friends, and not only at Christmas. All you need to do is source some pretty looking brown/ amber bottles and fill them up with extract, and then add pretty labels and bows and you have a gift any of your friends would kill to receive!
If making your own labels is too much of an effort there are any number of nice people who offer the option of printing lovely labels that they have created, for free. Just search the internet and you're sure to find one you like, just like I did.
The recipe below makes one 180ml bottle of vanilla extract.
- Using the tip of a sharp knife, slit each vanilla bean lengthwise. Put them into the vodka bottle, such that the beans are completely submerged. If they don’t fit, cut the beans in half and then put them in.
- Tighten the lid of the bottle and keep them in a cool and dark place (room temperature) for at least a month. I prefer to let them sit for 2 months. Shake the bottle a couple of times in between.
- If you want, you can then strain the extract into another bottle for use. Otherwise use it as it is. Once you have used about 1/3 of the extract in a bottle, you can extend it by topping it up with more plain vodka, so the beans are submerged. Let it sit for another month or so. This will extract the Vanilla further.