Wednesday, October 17, 2012

DIY Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is SO expensive - have you noticed? Often, I'm tempted to grab the imitation vanilla extract because it's always a few dollars cheaper. What's the difference?
  • Vanilla extract, according to the FDA, must contain 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans per gallon and at least 35% alcohol (70 proof!).
  • Imitation vanilla is just that - it's an imitation made from chemicals and whatnot and doesn't contain vanilla at all. It's actually some wood byproduct. The word "byproduct" grosses me out a bit.
  • There's also vanilla flavoring, which is derived from vanilla beans and contains no alcohol.
If you remember, I bought a stash of vanilla beans from Amazon.com (the price has gone up a few dollars) a while ago and they're still amazing and delicious and fresh (reminder: silken tofu cheesecake post) because I've been keeping them in an airtight container. Side note: it smells AMAZING every time I need to open that container to get some beans. So, I had the idea to just make my own vanilla extract. I've seen it all over Pinterest and other blogs anyway, so I gave it a go.

This is the ratio I used: 1 vanilla bean per 1/2 cup of vodka. This gives you a lower ratio of beans to alcohol than what the FDA considers pure vanilla extract. HOWEVER, because you leave the beans to steep indefinitely, you still get as much or more vanilla flavor out of this ratio than you would in a store-bought extract. So, why vodka, why not bourbon? I'm sure you've seen bourbon vanilla extract before and its name has nothing to do with bourbon liquor. It was named for the time when the Bourbon kings of France ruled some French island in the Indian Ocean. Honestly, you could potentially use any liquor you like, as long as its got a high enough alcohol content but I like vodka because it tastes so neutral and because it starts off clear, you really get to see the transformation in how deep the color becomes. Clear rum would also be a good choice.

So, because I'm weird and kind of ambitious and love to hoard and store stuff for the future, I decided to do a HUGE bottle of extract. Instead of just putting a bit of vodka in a bottle with a bean, I used a 750mL bottle of vodka and 6 beans (though, I realize that only 5 are pictured below). 750 mL is about 3 cups, which means I needed 6 beans.
So first things first, I split the bean in half, lengthwise, to expose the lovely vanilla seeds.
Here's a view of the seeds, for those of you who have never seen the inside of a vanilla bean. The seeds should be moist. If they're dry and the bean is sort of crumbly instead of plump and soft, that means you bought some bad beans or you didn't store them properly.
You might end up with some of that vanilla caviar on your fingers. And you'll be glad because your hand will smell lovely for the rest of the day.
Then, I just dropped the split beans in the vodka. And after that, it's just a waiting game.
Oh, and if you want to be cool like me (NOT), you can add a little label so that someone doesn't accidentally chug the pre-vanilla extract after a hard day at work or something.
Like I said, it's just a waiting game after that. Make sure you keep the vanilla in a cool, dark place - much like you do with the store bought stuff - and give it a shake every day or two. You'll see it go from an amber color and become darker and darker until it's almost black. It will take at least 4 weeks to get enough vanilla flavor into the vodka to be worth using. After that, you can filter it and bottle it into smaller bottles to give away as gifts or if you're selfish and plan on keeping it all to yourself, do what you want! By the way, you can also make a smaller batch and then as you use the extract, top it off with a little more vodka to make it last longer. Since the beans are sitting in the bottle, you're not really diluting the extract. Hooray for being frugal!

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