Vanilla Extract 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? The processing of the pods into the dark brown vanilla bean is time consuming and labour intensive. This is what makes vanilla the second most expensive spice after saffron.
I try to avoid processed foodstuff, and usually cooks from scratch as much as I can. Yet I have been using “fake” vanilla extract/ essence for the longest time. I knew that this was not the real thing as it was labelled “Artificial Vanilla Flavouring Agent”. The label had water, propylene glycol, nature identical flavouring substances, artificial flavouring substances, and caramel colour listed on it. That was all I had and I made do with it because I didn’t know it could be made at home.
Not until a good friend and fellow blogger, Nivedita came visiting from the US. She brought me food gifts naturally. One of them was a small jar of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean paste. A whiff of that stuff, and I was converted. I stretched the contents of the jar as far as I could. However, all good things must come to an end.
That’s when I went looking to see if I could make Vanilla Extract at home. I found I could. 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 to source. So was the alcohol, – vodka in my case. The quality of Vanilla Extract depends on the quality of the beans, 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.
When it comes to the alcohol, it apparently doesn’t really matter what you use. So you can save some money here and buy the cheaper brands. I bought 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. You can use any particular kind depending on your preference. Some people use bourbon, brandy or rum as the alcohol base but it really doesn’t matter much.
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 was about Rs.50 for 180ml (less than $1). The Vanilla beans were 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! Making your own Vanilla Extract is very little work. Slit the Vanilla pods and put them into the bottles of vodka. Close the bottles to make it all airtight. Then leave them to sitting 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, especially at Christmas. Source some pretty looking brown/ amber bottles and fill them up with extract. Add pretty labels and bows and you have a gift any of your friends would kill to receive! The recipe below makes one 180ml bottle of Vanilla Extract.
If making your own labels is too much of an effort, you can print them online. I found these free-to-use pretty ones.
Vanilla Extract : Make-It-At-Home Series
- 3 to 4 vanilla beans
- 1 bottle plain vodka (180 ml)
- 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.