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Monday, May 12, 2014

Vanilla and how to make (what I think is) the very best extract

Where does vanilla come from? Why is it soooo expensive? And what is artificial vanilla made of?

Did you know that vanilla comes from a species of orchid? Vanilla beans or seed pods are the resulting fruit from pollination of this species of orchid.

Originally vanilla production was limited to the Americas, as this orchid had just one natural pollinator, a specific bee. Methods of hand pollination were implemented as a way to grow vanilla outside of the Americas.

Today, with hand pollination, the majority of the world's vanilla beans come from the islands of the Indian Ocean, Bourbon vanilla (from Bourbon Island, not made with bourbon), or Madagascar vanilla (from Madagascar and neighboring islands). Other sources of modern day vanilla still include Mexico, as well as the Tahitian Islands, and the West Indies.

Vanilla is a costly spice/flavoring, second only to saffron, due to the labor-intensive process of artificially pollinating the blossoms.

Because of this high cost, artificial vanilla flavors are commonly found in many commercially baked goods.

The most common consumer artificial vanilla flavoring contains a form of vanillin, synthesized from a natural polymer found in wood. It's a synthetic flavor. In addition, artificial vanilla flavoring often contains coloring, for which the label does not need to specify this coloring's origin (often simply called "caramel coloring"), and sugars.

When the label says "natural" flavoring on a vanilla product, does this mean natural vanilla? Or something else?

So, there's this rumor/myth circulating that a natural, vanilla-like flavoring comes from beaver glands and is used in "natural" vanilla flavoring. The castor sacs of beavers produces a secretion that does have a vanilla-like essence. And it has been approved by the FDA to be safe for use in food. However, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group (who thoroughly investigated this), no major vanilla manufacturer in the USA uses this as a source of vanilla flavoring. In years past, it may have been used, but not in today's manufacturing process.

So, what is "natural" vanilla flavoring?

The FDA is very specific about what can be called vanilla extract, and what has to be called vanilla flavoring. Only products made with vanilla beans, alcohol and water can be called vanilla extract. The alcohol-free substitute, made with glycerine and/or propylene glycol, must be called vanilla flavoring. It's still made from natural vanilla, but it's flavor is slightly different from pure vanilla extract.

Vanilla extract is also allowed to contain sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, caramel color and stabilizers. It's these extra ingredients that makes me inclined to favor homemade vanilla extract.

If you are traveling outside the US, all bets are off as to what is in that cheap bottle of "vanilla extract". Other countries do not need to abide by the FDA's regulations, if they are selling their product outside the US. I remember my mom buying "vanilla extract" in Mexico, when we'd go down to Tijuana (I grew up in So. Calif.). She raved over how cheap it was. But who really knows what was in those bottles?

Just to simplify all of this, I prefer to just make my own. That way, I know exactly what it contains. And if I'm not satisfied with it's strength, then I can adjust that myself, at home.


To make vanilla extract

If I'm gonna go to the trouble of making my own vanilla extract, I want it to be goooooood! Here's how I do it.

To make your own high-quality, pure vanilla extract, you'll need:

a 1-quart glass jar, with plastic lid
12 ounces of vodka (I use bottom-shelf vodka, whatever is cheapest -- and you can fudge a bit on the amount of vodka and use up to 14 ounces per 8 or 9 beans, but it will be of lesser strength)
8 to 10 whole vanilla beans
a sharp knife and cutting board
and, eventually a small, dark glass bottle to decant your finished product

A lot of homemade vanilla isn't much more than vanilla booze. Many online recipes say to pop a vanilla bean into a fifth of vodka and let it sit a month or two. You just can't get enough flavor out of that one vanilla bean. The FDA actually has set standards on what can be called vanilla extract. It's a ratio of about 9 beans for every 12 ounces of vodka. (The amount of beans is set by weight and not count, hence the "about".)

I say, go for the beans! I use 8 beans in 10 to 12 ounces of vodka (however much I have at the time). And I really love the resulting flavor.

If your vanilla does not taste as strong as you like, that's easy to remedy. Simply add another split bean or two, and wait a few weeks. If your vanilla is too strong, then either add less to recipes, or add a bit more vodka to the jar.

And time. You've got to let it infuse for several months. IMO, the best flavor emerges around the 8-month marker. The flavor of the extract is complex and rich at this point. So, if you want vanilla for holiday baking or gifting, now is the time to start.

The process:

You will get the most flavor by exposing a lot of surface area of the pod to the infusing liquid (vodka is my alcohol of choice for making vanilla).

So, using the point of a sharp knife, I first split the pods lengthwise.

Then I scrape out the seeds with the back of the knife blade, and put these scrapings in a quart-size glass jar along with the vodka.

I cut each split pod into 2-inch lengths. Every time you add a cut surface to the vanilla bean, you add the ability to draw out more flavor. (I could chop the beans finely, but I want to be able to fish out the pieces after 2 years.)

Place a lid tightly on the jar and allow to infuse in a dark place. From what I've read, you want to store your vanilla in a dark cupboard to protect the fragile oils from exposure to light (could weaken the strength over time).

Start testing your vanilla around the 4th or 5th month. I think the flavor really matures around month 8.

When ready, decant the vanilla, a couple of ounces at a time, into a small dark bottle. (I reuse an old commercial vanilla bottle.)

To make more vanilla:

I leave the beans in the same jar of vodka for 2 years. I add new beans and vodka each year.

To determine which beans are the two-year old ones, I alternate years with my cutting technique.

  • On year one, I split the beans, then cut into 2-inch lengths. 
  • On year two, I split and scrape the beans, but leave them whole
  • On year three, I remove the old 2-inch lengths before adding new 2-inch ones. 

I figure that a vanilla pod that is a year old should still have a bit of flavoring left in it, so I leave it to infuse with the new pods.

Don't throw those used pods away! Dry them, and add to a container of granulated sugar. You'll have a mild vanilla-flavored sugar to add to coffee or tea, or to sprinkle over shortbread and other cookies.

Just how high quality of vanilla beans do you need for making extract?

Do you need premium vanilla beans? Nope! (Finally a do-it-yourself project that doesn't require premium anything!) Vanilla beans are graded based on appearance and moisture content. Highest grade vanilla beans don't necessarily have more flavoring potential than lower grade. So, those $10 glass vials at the supermarket, containing one lone vanilla bean may be significantly overpriced for making extract. Go for less expensive beans.

I've been very happy making vanilla extract with less expensive vanilla beans and bottom-shelf vodka for several years.

In my next post, I'll tell you where I get most of my vanilla beans for free, and how you can too (plus a giveaway). And I'll give you a couple of sources for buying quality vanilla beans at a good price. So, stay tuned.

sources for this post include: the website from FDA.govwikipedia,The Vegetarian Resource Group

What are your thoughts on home-made vanilla? Do you make your own? Buy pure vanilla extract? Buy artificial vanilla flavoring? Does it matter to you whether vanilla is real or artificial? It is only a teaspoon or so added to recipes. Maybe real or artificial doesn't matter to you. Just wondering what your thoughts are.


  1. Okay, so this explains why my homemade vanilla is horrible! I used 1 vanilla bean in a fairly large bottle of vodka. Can I just add more vanilla beans, or do I have to start over? What do you think?

    1. Hi Kira,
      sure, just split, cut and add more beans, ideally to bring you up to a ratio of say 8 beans to 10 to 12 ounces of vodka. Later this week I'll tell you how I get FREE vanilla beans, and you can too, plus I have a giveaway. So, you may want to wait just a bit before buying more vanilla beans. :)

  2. I've been making my own vanilla for several years now, but maybe not using enough beans? I think I have about 5 in a quart jar that was originally filled with vodka. Will step it up a notch next time. :) Congratulations on the new domain for you blog!

    1. Hi Cat,
      thank you. I'm hoping this will be an easier address to remember, no more, just

      The way I look at it, with using a lot of vanilla beans, is this: vodka is actually pretty expensive here. If my vanilla is weak, I'm inclined to use more extract with each recipe. So, if I just make the flavor stronger, I wind up using less, including less vodka. And that winds up saving me a bit of money over the course of the year.

      Stay tuned for info on where to get free and/or cheap vanilla beans!

  3. I just buy pure vanilla extract at Costco in large bottles. It costs about what it would cost to make it myself. My only complaint with the large Costco bottles is that after a couple of years, it seems the vanilla doesn't taste as strong.

  4. Hi Kath,
    you bring up a really good point! Sometimes, DIY doesn't save any more money over buying ready-made. Sometimes the value is in doing it yourself, or controlling the ingredients or how the making affects the environment or workers involved (not saying that vanilla negatively affects environment/workers, just an "in general" sort of thing), and then sometimes, making your own does save money.

    Not everyone has the time or desire to make their own, and I embrace finding what you enjoy, and doing that. What I'm saying is good for you for knowing how you want to spend your time. Store-bought vanilla extract is just as delicious as homemade.

    As for losing strength, yes, according to a couple of websites on using extracts, they can lose strength in as little as 6 months, if not stored properly. Exposure to heat, air and light is the culprit. At the restaurant supply I frequent, 16 oz vanilla extract is sold in clear plastic bottles. I don't know if this is how yours is packaged. But what I'd be inclined to do is 1) store this at the back of a dark, cool cupboard, and not just above an under-cabinet light fixture (I can rise bread in the cabinet just above my under-cab lights, it's that warm). 2) decant a small amount of the big bottle into a small, dark bottle, for current use, refilling as needed. and 3) make sure the cap was sealed, tightly on the bottles. If you only go through half of a large bottle in about 2 years time, consider splitting a bottle with a friend. You'll both get a deal on the extract, and both of you will enjoy the extract at it's peak strength.

    Good luck, Kath, and thanks for sharing your view.

  5. I started making my own vanilla a couple of years ago. I think the determining factor of which is cheaper depends on the cost of the vanilla beans. So I'm anxious to hear your story on them. Once you have them, you can just keep reusing them and add more.

    I also wanted to tell you that I bought a 25# bag of juicing carrots as you mentioned in a post. I sorted them and bagged them just as you did. Those carrots were sweeter than any I have had in a long time. Sure, they were split and a lot of them were broken, but they get cut up anyway. Thank you for that great tip! I enjoy reading your blog and get many useful ideas from you.

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      You're absolutely right on whether it's cheaper to just buy ready-made vanilla or make your own. Later this week I've got a post on where to get free vanilla beans, or at the least spend significantly less than grocery store prices on them.

      I just love the big 25 lb bags of juicing carrots. Even when many are split or broken, we still can use them all. It was silly of me, all those years buying 5 lb bags every other week (we go through a lot of carrots, here), when the 25 lb bag was so much less-expensive, and we use them all before they go bad. I'm glad you can use that tip!

  6. Hi LiLi,
    remember me? You helped me so much last fall and I appreciate all that you do. I'm now working 3/4 time, we're doing better, but still working on saving money to pay down some debt.
    I have to try this! I can't wait to hear where to get free vanilla beans. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Ha ha.

  7. Hi Janice,
    of course I remember you! I'm so glad you added a comment here, so I can know how you're doing.
    You are to be commended for paying down debt. The choices you have to make to do so are not always easy choices. What a good job you're doing!
    On vanilla beans -- later this week. . .

  8. I've had low quality vanilla for so many years, I wonder if I would like the taste of the good stuff? :)

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I don't know if you've switched around with brands, but I found many variations in flavor. We had one vanilla that tasted more like banana flavoring than vanilla. Another tasted like it had artificial sweeteners in it. And I'm not sure it had anything to do with price point.

  9. Love this, Lili! I've wanted to make homemade vanilla for Christmas gifts but never think of it far enough in advance. Now would be the perfect time!

    1. HI Sharon,
      And just think, you'd have some of your Christmas work already done, long before the rush of the holidays!

  10. Fascinating! I would love to try and make my own vanilla. We live in a dry county, so I will have to drive about 45 miles to get the vodka, but will have to getting sometime soon.

    1. Hi Belinda,
      you know, my husband lived in Kentucky for many years, and he was the one who told me about dry counties. We didn't have that in So. Calif, and now in Washington state. A bit of a hassle, I'm sure. But as you only need to buy the vodka once for a few years of extract, maybe not too much inconvenience. (A fifth of vodka has been enough for 2 yrs of vanilla extract for our household.)

  11. Hey! I've just started my first batch of extract, and need to know how to get them free!!!!!! And I live in Kentucky, and my county is newly no longer dry (I actually enjoyed the existence of dry counties...).

    1. Hi there,
      this is a very old post, from 2014. In a post from 2 days after this one, I detailed how I got vanilla beans for free for a couple of years in a row, using a $10 birthday coupon from a retailer. That retailer no longer offers the $10 birthday coupons to its reward members. So, I'm afraid that we're both out of luck on getting vanilla beans for free! :(

      I was pricing vanilla beans recently, though, and found the best prices in bulk through ebay when you buy 10 or more beans at a time. The last time that I made vanilla, I went in on a large batch of vanilla beans with a friend and we both saved some money. Just a thought.

  12. You said that you scrape the beans and put the seeds in a quart jar with vodka. Why? What else can I do with the seeds?

    1. Hi Martha,
      You don't have to add the seeds to the vodka to make vanilla extract, but the seeds will add more flavor to the finished extract and provide a usable vanilla flavoring sooner. The seeds have a lot of flavor.
      You could also add the seeds to a saucepan of whole milk, heat gently and use this milk to make custard, eggnog, or ice cream. Or you could stir the seeds into granulated sugar to make a vanilla-infused sugar for dusting cookie or scone dough before baking. Enjoy!


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