Making your own vanilla extract is an easy DIY project and is an especially thoughtful handmade gift for the baker on your holiday list. This recipe certainly makes enough that you could keep a small bottle for yourself, too.
It takes a minimum of a month to make homemade extract, so get started now if you want to have this ready for the holidays!
How It's Made
Vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans in vodka, bourbon, or even brandy. The longer you let the beans infuse, or the more beans you use, the stronger your extract. The recipe below will make a basic extract that can be used in any baking recipe.
Most recipes will tell you to just split the beans and stick them in a jar, but I like to actually scrape out the seeds and then add both the seeds and the pods to the jar. I feel that this gets the infusion going faster and creates a more robustly flavored extract.
Scraping out the seeds means you will have some floaty vanilla seeds in the extract. I like to think of them as flavor enhancers!
However, if you’re after a more pristine extract without the floaters, then once the vanilla has steeped, pour it through a coffee filter into a measuring cup to catch the seeds and sediment.
You can just leave the beans in the jar with the extract after steeping – you can even refill the jar with alcohol once you've used all the extract and do a second infusion. Alternatively, you can remove the beans from the steeped extract immediately and use them to start another jar infusing. Beans can be used several times before losing their potency.
What to Buy
You can certainly buy your vanilla beans from the grocery store—Nielsen-Massey is good brand that's carried in many stores. Or opt for an online wholesaler such as Beanilla, which can often be more economical if you’re buying in larger quantities.
Plan on needing three to five beans per 8 ounces of alcohol. You can scale up or down to make more or less extract, or can also add more beans if you want to speed up the extraction process.
As for what kind of beans to buy, it depends on the flavor profile you're going for:
- Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans: These beans will give your extract that classic vanilla taste—it’s smooth, creamy and unmistakably vanilla.
- Indonesian vanilla beans: These make an extract with a somewhat woody, smoky flavor.
- Mexican vanilla beans: These offer some spicy cinnamon-clove undertones.
- Tahitian vanilla beans: These are more fruity or floral in their aroma. Note, however, that they come from a different plant altogether.
Most of the beans you will encounter will be Grade B and labeled “Extract Grade B.” These beans have less moisture than Grade A beans, but are fine for making extract.
As for the liquor, vodka is the most neutral choice. Buy what you like depending on your personal preference, however I would avoid both the cheapest vodka and the most expensive. A middle-shelf liquor is fine for this purpose.
For general baking I prefer extract made with vodka because it allows the flavors of vanilla to come through most strongly and clearly. However, you can also use rum or bourbon, depending on your preference and what you’re planning to use the vanilla for.
The head baker of a local bakery near me buys organic beans in bulk and makes extract using local vodka distilled here in Pennsylvania. She reuses the beans a couple of times after the initial batch without suffering quality or strength.
Her extract is wonderful, but it’s not necessary to go out of your way to use a top-shelf spirit, unless you want to. You won’t necessarily taste the difference.
The Cost Breakdown of Homemade Vanilla Extract
If you were to buy a mere 2-ounce bottle of pure vanilla extract at the grocery store, it will set you back $9-$12, depending on brand and market. (Vanilla is higher than usual right now – here's why.)
For my homemade extract, I used a mid-range bottle of Swedish vodka that was on sale for about $10 (standard 750mL size, which is about 25 ounces). The beans will run you about $20 to $25, depending on how many you buy.
Since you can re-use the beans several times, one bottle of vodka and a few beans will give you several batches of extract. That’s pretty darned economical.
Regarding bottles, you can certainly order bottles online if you are gifting these. However, I'm thrifty and usually use re-used jars saved from buying supermarket vanilla. I also do the initial extracting process in a mason jar or other large container, and then transfer the finished extract to the smaller bottles using a funnel.
Bonus: Vanilla Sugar!
Once you’ve used the beans a few times to make extract, use them a final time to create vanilla sugar. Fill a small jar or plastic container with granulated sugar. Bury your spent pods beneath the sugar and infuse indefinitely—the sugar will become fragrant with vanilla. Use the sugar in cookies, tea, or anywhere you want a little extra pop of vanilla. As with the extract, you can continue to replenish the sugar supply in the container and reuse the beans.
How to Make Vanilla Extract
- 3 to 5 whole vanilla beans
- 1 cup vodka, bourbon rum or brandy
Split the pods and scrape out the seeds:
Cut a thin sit down the center of each vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds. If you need to cut the beans into smaller pieces to fit your jar, go ahead and do that.
Combine the vanilla beans and pods with the alcohol:
Transfer the vanilla pod the beans to an 8-ounce jar or bottle. Cover with the alcohol, making sure the beans are submerged (it's ok if the very tips are above the surface).
Cover the jar or bottle and shake it a couple of times.
Steep for 4 to 6 weeks:
The beans will need four to six weeks to reach their peak flavor, but you can speed up the process by adding a couple more beans to the jar, which will concentrate the flavor. You can also let the extract infuse for longer if you like.
If you think of it, shake the jar a few times while it's steeping and check it's progress based on the color. You'll know it's done when it smells more like vanilla and less like alcohol. It will also turn a deep brown color.
Strain the extract (optional)
If you'd like to remove the seeds from the extract, pull the pods from the jar and strain the extract through a coffee filter or a fine sieve to remove the beans.
Transfer the extract to smaller bottles (optional)
Use the extract straight from the steeping jar, or transfer it to smaller bottles for gifting. A small funnel makes it easier to fill the bottles without spilling.
Reuse the beans
You can leave the pods in the extract (where they will continue to infuse the extract with more flavor), or transfer them to a new jar, cover with more alcohol, and start the process anew. Beans can be re-used several times before losing their potency.