How to Make Vanilla Extract

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Why make your own vanilla extract? Well let’s see. It’s easy to make. You’ll never run out of vanilla again. It might even be economical, given that you’ll never run out of it. It’s fun to watch the extract change colors? I don’t know. Sometimes we just make things for the heck of it. In this case, Garrett gave me a dozen or so vanilla beans, sharing what he had been given by this generous company. Vanilla beans are produced in several countries, and Garrett has a good write-up on his site regarding the differences between the varieties – Madagascar, Bourbon, Tonga, Mexico, Tahiti, etc.

Did you know that each vanilla bean comes from an orchid that has been pollinated by hand? Once the vanilla seed pod has developed, it must be hand picked as well. After picking the curing process takes several months. So if you’ve ever wondered why vanilla extract, and especially vanilla beans, can be so expensive, this is why.

How to Make Vanilla Extract

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Commercial vanilla extract usually has simple syrup (sugar water) added to the extract to give it a sweet aftertaste. You can do this if you want, but if you are using the vanilla for baking, there really is no need.

Ingredients

  • 3 vanilla beans
  • 1 cup vodka
  • glass jar with tight fitting lid

Method

vanilla-extract-1.jpg

1 Use kitchen scissors or a sharp paring knife to cut lengthwise down each vanilla bean, splitting them in half, leaving an inch at the end connected.

2 Put vanilla beans in a glass jar or bottle with a tight fitting lid (mason jars work well). Cover completely with the vodka.

3 Give the bottle a good shake every once in a while. Store in a dark, cool place for 2 months or longer.

Lasts for years. You can keep topping it off with vodka once in a while as you use it, just remember to give it a good shake.

You can also make vanilla sugar by putting a split vanilla bean into a jar of white, granulated sugar. Great way to infuse the sugar with vanilla flavor for baking.

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Many people have asked about the bottle I used for making the vinegar. The bottle is from an empty bottle of Italian balsamic vinegar that I cleaned out. The brand of balsamic is Leonardi Balsamico which you can buy in Italian specialty stores or online. ~Elise

Links:

Wikipedia on Vanilla
Know Your Vanilla - A Guide to Vanilla Varieties - notes from Garrett
Adorable labels and instructions for your homemade vanilla extract from Style Me Pretty

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Showing 4 of 142 Comments

  • Elkie

    Hi could you recommend a method for making rhubarb extract?
    would you use the same method – in a bottle with vodka?
    Thanks!

  • Cappy

    To add a true island flavor to your extract make it with good rum.

  • yana

    I have extensive knowledge about vanilla, and about making extract from it. There is a long tonne of incorrect information in the comments to this post, not quite to the level of horrifying or dangerous, but it still makes me sigh sadly that there are so few (and scattered) correct sources of information about vanilla on the ‘net.

    To tackle only the most recent Q’s:

    to Shelley: never use plastic bottles. Plastic is inherently unable to remain airtight at the mouth, and even through the body of the bottle, there will be some exchange of gases over the length of time this extraction requires. Oxygen will enter and degrade your extract, and organic gases given off by the plastic itself will taint your extract. In this case, we use “organic” not in the wholesome foody meaning, but in the “organic chemistry” meaning.

    to Irma: see Shelley’s answer above, and… never put anything edible under your sink ;-) Part of your problem is the plastic bottles, the other part is the structurally deficient recipe given here. If using only 8 fluid ounces of vodka, you must chop the beans into 1 or 2-inch lengths. They will sink.

    to Jeannie: because there are only two “grades” of vanilla, A or B, there is an unsettling range of quality levels within each grade. Will a grade-B bean have seeds? Yes. Can you get at this caviar to scrape it out? Maybe. Depends on how far gone they are, into grade-B-land. If you’re using one sixteenth of a gallon (a cup) of solvent, then you need 1/16 of a unit of vanilla to make single-fold extract. Use two 16ths of a unit of vanilla, and you have double-fold extract. A unit of vanilla is defined as 15 ounces of grade-A beans or 13.35 ounces of grade-B vanilla pods. The structurally deficient recipe here calls for 3 vanilla beans. This will never yield single-fold vanilla extract, only nicely flavored vodka, possibly half-fold, possibly not even that. For one cup of solvent, to get single-fold extract, you need 5.86 grade-A vanilla beans or 7.82 grade-B beans. Even in cooking, math wants to be your friend, no matter how assertively you shun it’s affections.

    to Amber and Jaime: the real problem with the recipe here is the proportions and the directions. Yes, you split the beans lengthwise, that is correct. But the crucial First Law of vanilla extract is that you must never (ever) allow the vanilla beans to breach the surface of the liquid (in this case, vodka). An 80 proof vodka is 40% ethanol, right? So what’s the other 60%? It is water. A vanilla bean is typically about 6 inches long. An 8 oz cup of liquid can never be 7 inches deep in a mason jar. In fact, to reach 7 inches in height, 8 fluid ounces needs a jar less than 2 inches in diameter.

    Your problem is not mold, it is a fungus. Vanilla pods left exposed to air and water will develop this fungus. All fungi are toxic to some degree greater or lesser. What you see is a mossy white substance, correct? If so, this is not highly toxic. Simply remove the beans, trim away the affected areas, wash them in clean cold running tap water, then chop the beans into 1 or 2-inch lengths so they will stay submerged. Then you need only remember that when your extract is done and you transfer it to another (brown glass) bottle for storage, you must filter your extract through a coffee filter before storing. Dampen the filter with vodka beforehand, or the greedy fibers will eat up half of your extract!

    If your fungus is NOT simply white and mossy, then it could be another substance, one of a dozen possible culprits, and personally, I would not take the risk. One nice thing about vanilla pods is that they are naturally anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal. The alcohol during extraction will take care of any possible mold growth. But this one fungus is a symbiont to vanilla, evolved over millions of years to resist vanilla’s range of anti-fungal agents. Or, the vanilla orchid might have evolved over millions of years to selectively promote this certain single fungus and inhibit all others. Who knows? In the natural world, it helps break down the pod’s tough outer husk, helping the seeds to propagate the species. In our world it is a nuisance, foul tasting and unsightly.

    Since we’re on the topic, if you see gold/yellow flakes floating on top of your extract, these are not a fungus, but instead rather valuable. They are pure vanilla extractives, and if you were to collect an ounce of them, you could sell it for $5,000. Don’t get giddy, I’ve done the math on it, and the amount of vanilla beans you would need is… almost $5,000.

    For other comments here in general:

    If you’re giving gifts of little holiday-happy bottles of vanilla extract, DO NOT include a small piece of vanilla bean in the bottle. I know it’s tempting, and for flavor it’s a great idea, but how can you be sure your Aunt Viv in Tulsa will follow the First Law and carefully make sure this vanilla chunk stays submerged at all times over the next few years? If she doesn’t, she ends up with fungus in the bottle and tells everyone on Facebook that your extract is ratty. You don’t need that reputation.

    Cheaper vodka is indeed better than expensive vodka, more likely to be purely water and ethanol. Someone mentioned Svedka, and that’s a great candidate. Glass bottles, multiple distillations, no flavorings. Try to buy it at a larger liquor store with more shelf turnover, so it’s fresher.

    Lower quality beans will extract faster, since they rehydrate in situ via the water in the solvent, but yield a lower quality taste. Better beans take longer to extract, unless you scrape out the caviar. Scraping the caviar makes an unbelievable mess and requires you to filter your extract after it’s done. In a dry pod, the caviar is a dust so fine that you won’t believe any such powder could exist. Put this into your vanilla ice cream.

    If giving small bottles as holiday gifts, do it at Thanksgiving, not at Christmas. Everyone’s all baked-out after New Year’s, so your prized extract will sit around for months. But gifting a handmade ingredient a month before Christmas will psyche-up your friends to find ways to use it. That kind of reputation, you’ll be glad to have.

  • Amber S

    I made this about two weeks ago and my vanilla beans are kind of fuzzy. I can’t imagine that it’s mold, because it’s in vodka, but is that possible? Has anyone else had this problem?

  • Heather

    This is awesome! I’m trying to move to making as many of my own ingredients as possible, and this was a great thing to try! I just started using mine, and it’s great! Here’s my blog post: http://heatskitchen.blogspot.com/2015/01/heats-homemade-vanilla-extract.html

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