Real Vanilla extract is made from vanilla pods and alcohol. It is easy to make and absolutely delicious, but is a special treat rather than a cheap, budget buy. It makes a wonderful homemade luxury gift for anyone who loves food and cooking. Vanilla comes from the edible fruit of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) and is the world’s second most expensive spice, after Saffron. It is scarce and expensive because it is so labour intensive to produce…the flowers must each be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of blooming! As frugal as I am, I make Vanilla extract as a special treat for myself as it is fabulous in baked goods, smoothies and chai tea and a little goes a very long way. It costs me about AUS$22 to make 250ml, which still works out cheaper than most brands and lasts me well over a year. In the future, I hope to harvest my own pods from the vanilla orchid growing in my greenhouse, which will bring the price down to the cost of a cup of vodka. A healthy vine, over three years old, should provide about 100 pods a year, so with any luck I will soon have so much vanilla I won’t know what to do with it all!
Why Use Real Vanilla Extract when Synthetic is cheaper?
Real Vanilla extract has a very complex taste and tremendous depth of flavour as vanilla beans contain over 250 flavour and aroma compounds. Imitation extract contains only the dominant compound, vanillin. Due to the expense and scarcity of real vanilla, demand always outstrips supply so artificial vanillin is now much more commonly used in foods and pharmaceuticals. Most artificial vanillin is made from guaiacol, which is a petrochemical precursor or from lignin wastes, a by-product of the paper/wood pulp industries. Both are labelled as ‘natural’ vanilla extract, but if you check the ingredients list on a store bought bottle of extract, the real thing is always listed as ‘vanilla’ whereas synthetic alternatives are labelled ‘vanillin’. In taste tests of cooked products, it is often difficult to differentiate real good quality vanilla from the synthetic alternatives (see this serious eats post for a review), but I can notice a substantial difference in ice-cream, smoothies, custards etc. I also prefer to use the real thing in baking as I know exactly what is in it and can produce a high-quality natural product from good quality vodka and organic vanilla pods, without the corn syrup, glucose and preservatives found in many store-bought brands.
The Difference Between Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Alcohol
The cost of vanilla pods is probably also the reason that so many online recipes for homemade vanilla extract scrimp on the amount of pods they use. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces (378g) of vanilla beans per gallon (3.79 litres) of extract for a single fold (single strength) vanilla extract, and the alcohol content needs to be at least 35 percent. This is the ratio for vanilla extracted industrially, which is far more efficient than anything you can achieve making it at home by hand. For homemade vanilla extract, you need to use at least 30 grams of vanilla per 250ml of alcohol (more if you are using grade A beans with a higher moisture content), if you use a recipe with less you are actually making vanilla flavoured vodka…which is great in a shot glass, but is not an extract.
How to use Vanilla Extract
Vanilla is generally associated with sweet foods such as ice cream, pancakes and baked goods. But it is not just a flavouring agent, it is also a flavour ‘potentiator’. Like salt, when used in quantities that do not overpower the flavour of other ingredients it actually “enhances” our ability to taste other flavours. It works particularly well with dairy products and chocolate by increasing richness and creaminess and it tones down and rounds the acidic flavour of fruits, especially citrus. It also works well with meat, poultry and seafood as a rub, marinade or sauce addition, adding both sweetness and a creamy smoothness.
Some of my favourite uses for vanilla extract include:
- Flavouring for Water Kefir
- French toast and pancakes
- Baked goods – Cookies, puddings, cake,
- Candy – Peanut brittle, toffee,
- Ice cream
- Addition to hot drinks – coffee, hot chocolate or chai masala tea
- Salad dressing
- Soups – tomato, squash, cauliflower
- Use as a perfume
- Wipe on skin to repel bugs
How to make Vanilla Extract
- 250ml Vodka – 35% – 40% alcohol. I generally use vodka as it has a neutral taste, but you could use bourbon, brandy or rum if you are feeling a bit more adventurous.
- 30g Organic Vanilla pods (preferably ‘Grade B’ but if using ‘Grade A’ add an extra pod)*
* Cheaper ‘Grade B’ pods are best as they contain less moisture, so whilst they don’t look as pretty, you get more for your money as you are not paying for water! Unfortunately, I have been unable to source ‘Grade B’ here in Australia, so the cost listed in the introductory paragraph is for the more expensive ‘Grade A’ pods (also called ‘prime’ or ‘gourmet’ pods).
There are two main types of vanilla, Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. The latter has a fruity more subtle flavour but I personally prefer the stronger taste of planifolia. There are also subtle differences in taste between Planifolia pods grown in different regions (e.g. Madagascar, Mexico) due to the method of curing. In the end, the type of vanilla pod used will come down to cost, personal preference and availability locally. A mix of the two species can also work well.
- 250ml Empty bottle. Brown or Green glass works well as it protects the extract from direct sun exposure. I use clear as I already have a lot of clear bottles and store my extract in a dark cupboard.
- Sharp knife
- Butter knife
Step 1. Cut each pod in half lengthways
Step 2. Scrape the vanilla caviar out of the beans with a butter knife and place into the empty bottle
Step 3. Cut up the vanilla beans and place into the bottle with the vanilla caviar
Step 5. Seal and shake the bottle, then place somewhere dark for 3-6 months. Shake the bottle periodically.
Step 6. The flavour continues to deepen over time. After 6 months, I sieve out the pods with a coffee filter as the flavour has mainly been extracted from the pods by that time. You can leave them in but if the pods are exposed to the air as you use it they can eventually turn bad. Once strained, the extract is shelf stable almost indefinitely. I use the extracted pieces of pod to make vanilla sugar and vanilla salt (to be covered in separate posts!).
- 250ml Empty bottle (preferably Brown or Green)
- Sharp knife
- Butter knife
- 250ml Vodka - 35-40% alcohol. I generally use vodka as it has a neutral taste, but you could use bourbon, brandy or rum if you are feeling a bit more adventurous.
- 30g Organic Vanilla pods (preferably Grade B but if using grade A add an extra pod)
- Cut each pod in half lengthways
- Scrape the vanilla caviar out of the beans with a butter knife and place into the empty bottle
- Cut up the vanilla beans and place into the bottle with the caviar
- Pour the alcohol into the bottle, leaving space so that the extract can be shaken later
- Use after 3- 6 months. After 6 months, sieve out the pods with a coffee filter to extend the shelf-life of the extract.