Everything you have ever heard about homemade vanilla extract is untrue. It’s not more intense, deeper in flavor, or less expensive than store-bought vanilla extract. I feel like kind of a jerk for even saying so, but there you go.
This is coming from a dyed-in-the-wool maker of things, sometimes to the point of bad judgement. I make my own lip balm, sauerkraut, yogurt, and even dish liquid. But I will instantly go to bat for commercial vanilla extract. It’s just...better.
How am I privy to this intel? Mostly from using various batches of the DIY stuff and comparing it to the results I got making recipes with the little brown bottles from the grocery store. Hands down, every time I used homemade vanilla, the extra somethin-somethin that good vanilla extract lends was missing. Plus, in the course of writing the Simply Recipes Guide to Vanilla I learned a lot about contemporary vanilla production and the history of vanilla, which has been fraught with geopolitical issues for ages (weather catastrophes, coups, and even vanilla bean rustling all play into the market of this incredible commodity). It made me appreciate vanilla even more than I did before, if that’s even possible.
But don’t just take my word for it: Let’s debunk a couple of the most common claims about homemade vanilla extract.
The Bummer Truth About Homemade Vanilla Extract
Fallacy #1: Homemade vanilla extract is cheaper.
To make vanilla bean extract, you need whole vanilla beans. And that’s expensive. At retail, a vanilla bean costs an average of $10. (There are a lot of factors: the size of the bean, the variety, the retailer). Most recipes call for 3 to 5 beans and 1 cup vodka or other liquor to make 8 ounces. So that’s a $30 to $50 investment in vanilla beans before you’re even counting the booze, or the purchase of appropriately charming bottles. For the flavor to be much of anything, you really should go with 5 beans, so let’s ditch the 3-bean scenario. A 5-bean batch is $6.25 for 2 ounces.
Meanwhile, 2-ounce bottles of vanilla extract typically run $6 to $8. But! The larger the bottle, the lower the cost per ounce. For example, an 8-ounce bottle of Rodelle pure vanilla extract (I’ve bought it before and would do so again) costs $19.99 at my local store, coming out at 40 cents an ounce. Meanwhile, the same yield of our homemade version will cost $3.75 to $6.25 an ounce.
Fallacy # 2: Homemade vanilla extract is more flavorful
Companies that make vanilla extract are in the business of making vanilla extract, and we regular folks are not. Because they buy in massive quantities, they have first crack at the vanilla beans on the market, and good extract makers get the best ones they can. (I used to work at a an artisan chocolate factory that used whole vanilla beans in bulk, and they were the plumpest, most aromatic vanilla beans I’ve seen). The vanilla beans that folks like us can get on the retail market, meanwhile, are sometimes not the most primo beans out there.
Companies that specialize in vanilla extract can adjust their blends and techniques to get consistent results. They also use proprietary methods to extract maximum flavor, techniques they’ve refined and perfected over the years—and, quite frankly, they’re ones the passive “stick a split pod in a jar of hooch” approach can’t hold a candle to.
Store-Bought Vanilla Extracts We Love
Depending on the brand and the amount you buy, vanilla extract straight off the shelf can be the most wonderful of attributes: cheaper and better. We’re fans of Nielsen-Massey vanilla products, from beans to extracts. They strive to be transparent about their sourcing and have made commitments to improving the lives of their growers. And because it’s made with vanilla grown in Veracruz, Mexico, where vanilla originated, I especially like Blue Cattle Truck.
Some vanilla extracts have caramel color, corn syrup, or sugar added (which is why some folks may prefer to make their own vanilla). These are often in trace amounts, but a good brand will often tell you everything on their FAQ page.
For Maximum Bang, Save Beans for Recipes
None of this means you should stop buying vanilla beans! I say skip the project of vanilla extract at home and save them for recipes where their perfume and allure will shine most: rich ice creams, simple panna cottas, and slowly roasted strawberries. A good rule of thumb is the fewer the ingredients in the recipe, the more prominent the vanilla bean flavor will be.
The Choice Is Yours: Leave Vanilla to the Experts...Or Don’t
Am I still a party pooper? That’s fine. Press on and make your jars of wan vanilla extract, putting it into adorable tiny bottles for gifting or keeping. Ultimately, what’s the harm? It’s easy and fun and pleasurable, and that’s no small thing. I’ll just be over here making messy, greasy batches of lip balm and baking pound cakes that have a smidge more vanilla oomph than yours.