Bakers tend to go through a lot of vanilla because the majority of dessert recipes call for it. It’s not that recipes can’t be made without vanilla – they can be and many are – but it is because vanilla is so delicious, adding a uniquely sweet, subtle flavor of its own and amplifying any other flavors it is combined with. If you go through a lot of vanilla, you will also have noticed that the price of vanilla has significantly increased over the past year. Instead of buying it, try making vanilla extract at home. It’s not only a fun project, but it will produce plenty of vanilla extract for all your baking recipes.
Making vanilla extract is simple and only requires two ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka (or white rum). Vanilla beans can be just as expensive as ready-made extract, but the good news is that you can get a lot more flavor out of them, so your vanilla extract will taste more potent than many store-bought products. You will also need a little bit of time, as it can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to make the extract.
You can use any vanilla beans, but you’ll get the best deal if you look online for grade B vanilla beans instead of using “regular” grade A beans. The difference between the two types of beans is primarily length, as grade B beans are much shorter. They pack in just as much vanilla flavor, however, and are a great option for making vanilla extract. If you happen to have some grade A beans at home and can’t wait to make your extract, you can go ahead and use those, as well. The beans should be split open or chopped up before using, as it will speed up the infusion process by bringing as much vanilla into direct contact with alcohol as possible.
Unflavored vodka is generally the alcohol of choice for making vanilla extract, though a neutral white rum (such as Bacardi) can also be used. I personally like to use rum because it has a natural hint of sweetness that I think makes for even better extract. Whatever alcohol you choose, work with one that is a decent quality so you don’t get any off flavors in your vanilla extract from poorly made spirits. You’re not going to drink the extract, but it’s still a good idea to use spirits that you would feel comfortable sipping.
Even if you don’t usually drink, you still should use alcohol to make your extract. Alcohol is an excellent solvent for many flavors, and for vanilla in particular. This means that you’ll get the most out of your vanilla beans by using alcohol to make an extract. And as with all vanilla extracts, the alcohol will burn off as you bake with it.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
2-4 vanilla beans*
8 oz vodka or white rum
Split vanilla beans lengthwise or chop into 1-inch pieces. Combine vanilla beans with vodka in a sealable glass jar or bottle. Shake vigorously, then store in a cool, dark place for 2-4 weeks to infuse. Shake the jar every couple of days to help speed the infusion along.
Vanilla beans can be strained out of the extract after infusion, dried and added to sugar to make vanilla sugar. Leave the vanilla bean specks in the extract to bring a vanilla bean paste look to your baked goods!
*More vanilla beans will give you a stronger vanilla extract, but I would recommend at least 12-inches of vanilla beans (two 6-inch beans or 3 4-inch beans) per 8 oz of alcohol for excellent results