We are hooked on homemade vanilla extract and have several bottles in various stages of aging including one that was started 15 years ago!
It was 1999 and Ina Garten talked about her 20 year-old bottle of homemade vanilla extract in the Barefoot Contessa cookbook. Intrigued by her recipe (put a dozen whole vanilla beans into a bottle of vodka and let it cure), we stuffed an empty Bombay Sapphire bottle with the beans, placed it on the back of a shelf at the Happy Chef’s bakery and waited a month. The result was just a pale version of the dark, rich extract we had expected. So back onto the shelf it went, and a full year later it was ready to use. When the Cake Shop opened in 2001, we moved the bottle and transferred it to this larger bottle:
At the Cake Shop, we bought vanilla beans by the pound from our food purveyor, so it was easy to make up gift bottles for baking friends who were mightily impressed to receive a bottle with a dozen vanilla beans – very valuable to those who were paying several dollars at the grocery store for a glass vial with a single vanilla bean. The high price is understandable; the beans are actually seed pods of the vanilla orchids, Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitiensis. About 10 years ago, through the explosion of online shopping sources, vanilla beans became readily available to the public and if purchased in bulk, at reasonable prices.
Recipes for homemade vanilla extract are everywhere, and most call for the beans to be split before immersing them in the alcohol. This works much better and faster than our original attempt. Author and culinary historian Patricia Rain (see more about her site below) recommends cutting the beans into small pieces before soaking. We tried that too.
Start with a food safe bottle large enough to hold 2 cups of liquid plus beans. For this post, our Spatula Queens artist-in-residence, Cheeko Douglas, decorated bottles that we’ll use for future gifts:
Cut a slit down one side of each whole bean and drop 6 to 8 into a pretty glass bottle and using a funnel, cover with your choice of spirits. We like vodka because it seems to yield the purest flavor; however it’s fun to try something more flavorful, like rum…mmm. Leave for at least four weeks, giving the bottle a little shake once a week. Whenever you use the extract, top it off with a little more alcohol so it can continue steeping… like for 15 years. We had some leftover vodka, so we also tried cutting a bunch of beans into pieces. These were some older beans that were starting to dry out a little, so what the heck. Here is the bottle on day 1 and again on day 3. This definitely looks like the fastest way to make the vanilla; however it just isn’t as pretty as the whole bean method. For the next round, maybe we should make it his way then strain it into the bottles and add a few split whole beans for looks.
A really good source for vanilla beans and much interesting information about vanilla is Patricia Rain’s site, www.vanilla.com. She has taken care to try to ensure the beans she sells are fair market trade (read about her socially conscious vision there). You can also buy her book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. (note, we don’t make anything from promoting her site – we are just fans).
Now it’s just a matter of waiting for it to steep. We started these to allow them plenty of time to be ready for holiday gifts. We’ll post progress photos in a few months.
2015 Update: Here it is – six months later and ready to share:
- 6 to 8 whole vanilla beans
- 2 cups (16 ounces) vodka
- A bottle that will hold the vodka and tall enough for the whole beans
- Slit each vanilla bean down the length of one side
- Drop the beans into bottle
- Add the vodka and seal tightly
- Leave for four weeks in a cool place.
- Give the bottle a shake once a week.