"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

September 27, 2011

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Talk about putting things off! I've had two of the most gorgeous, squishy 1/4# bags of vanilla beans in my pantry since late May when I picked them up at nearby Wilson's Cedar Point Farm (near the Casey County line in western Pulaski County) during strawberry season. The man working there that day happened to be selling both Tahitian and Madagascar varieties from the inventory of a spice wholesaler friend (a good friend to have!) and I was delighted to scarf them up. My good fortune was not lost on me: it was one of those days of alarming kismet, when you feel great to be living in a place where the strawberry man happened to read your mind about the vanilla you've been planning to make. There, at a small roadside stand in rural Kentucky, I traded cash for beans. A delightful encounter, but rather than seize the beans at the time, they've been in my pantry ever since.

Tahitian beans, left and Madagascar, right.

As I am not likely to find a roadside vanilla bean man every day, you can also purchase vanilla beans in bulk on line through any number of affordable spice emporiums, your local bulk foods shop (we like Sunny Valley Country Store in nearby Casey County), or even on eBay! If you are making large quantities of extract you will want to go the wholesale route, if possible, as the smaller Tahitian beans can be several dollars each or more. If you can, find some Madagascar: it will make a richer vanilla and the beans are light years away from the Tahitian. The former variety is plump, almost raisiny, in texture and cuts easily, revealing their fleshy and seedy interior. However, because you are making an infusion, either bean will work.

We also have a full, I mean FULL, liquor (and wine) closet. Much of this came down with us from New Hampshire. We don't drink much but when we do, or when we want some on hand for cooking, we like to have it at the ready. We are also in a dry county: as in we have to drive almost as far as Lexington (90 miles and 90 minutes, as I say) to purchase more liquor. This was a new, somewhat quirky concept to me when we moved to Kentucky. So, yes, earlier this summer I bought vodka, rum, and even some local bourbon varieties, to try my hand at vanilla-making.

I wanted to try several varieties, not that it likely makes a difference, so I used
vodka, clear rum and dark rum and the last bit of Woodford Reserve on hand.
[I didn't even think of opening the Maker's Mark for vanilla – sacrilege! Besides, I prefer Woodford.]

As with most things, this process is deceptively easy. The trick is just DOING IT (says the woman who was armed and ready in May to do so)! Also, you do not need six months to age it as I'd thought: two-three months is just as sufficient, or even less according to some recipes. Now I will have plenty of extract for 2012 as well as some holiday gift-giving in less than three months. 

Here's the basic vanilla recipe, followed by my larger quantity recipe:
  • Slice 3-4 beans vertically (but don't detach) and place in 1 pint of bourbon, rum, brandy or vodka
Now, I don't know if the type of alcohol, other than listed above, or the brand, really matters. That is why I am using several different liquor bases to make mine. Also, with the exception of one pint using Tahitian beans (I want to compare bean flavors), I used all Madagascar beans. Because they are larger, I used 3 to 3.5 beans a quart. [You would want to double that amount if using Tahitian beans: some use even more than that.]

Massive Quantity of Vanilla Extract

I have not yet done a cost analysis but I expect it is much cheaper than store-bought:
  • 1.75 ltr bottle vodka
  • 1.75 ltr bottle clear rum
  • 1.75 ltr bottle dark rum
  • 1 cup Woodford's Reserve bourbon (leftover from julep season)
  • c. 24 vanilla beans (mostly Madagascar), or 1/4 pound beans
[Or, three 1.75 litres of the same alcohol variety]

1. Take a small and very sharp paring knife and along a wooden cutting board (so knife doesn't slip), open up the vanilla beans vertically. Places in different sized glass jars or one or two large ones (especially if using one or two alcohol varieties): here would be a great time to use some of those large 1/2 gallon Ball jars! Next time...).

2. Pour in liquor, using ratio found in basic vanilla recipe, above.

3. Cap jars tightly (I use the plastic Ball storage lids and they are perfect here).

4.  Label jars and date them: this is especially important if you are experimenting with different kinds of liquor. [I found wonderful vintage red labels from Gartner at Target last year––they remind me of the vintage ones that you could always find from old label companies.]

5. Place jars in cool dark closet for anywhere between several days to several months (although 4-6 weeks seems the average suggestion). In mid-late November I'll start bottling it up. [NOTE: I love old Classico® bottles which is one reason I buy their sauce! You can actually reuse them for canning because the openings are the same size as small-mouthed canning jars.]

Many recommend, after the extract is ready, to just keep topping off with more alcohol, keeping the beans in the extract as is. Or, you can strain your extract and decant into smaller bottles for gift-giving. [More on this in a few months.] Oh, and I almost forgot: the above recipe yielded me 176 oz of percolating extract: or 5 quarts and 1 pint, or 1 gallon and 1 quart and 1 pint! That's a lot of vanilla.

For the past month I've also been using the smaller Tahitian beans in some of my preserving and canning infusions. So when one of those beans is "spent" I recyled it into vanilla sugar. Just take a pint jar and place used bean (or two) into it, put on tight lid, and let rest on your pantry shelf. Use sugar for dusting baked goods, in tea, etc.

Next on Lifetime®: What Mommy Really Does in the Pantry–The Catherine Pond Story
 My husband will be horrified to see this sink, until he finds out it was only a vanilla bender! 

Once you make and use your own homemade vanilla extract, you won't want to buy store-bought again. It is more affordable, more luscious, more infused. And, you can keep adding to it if you like. It's the extract that never ends.

So here's to holiday baking, gifting to my fabulous baker and foodie friends, and many winter custards ahead ~

You come back when you're ready!



  1. I wish I would run into a roadside vanilla bean man! Lucky girl!

    I am planning on making some vanilla for gifts this year and enjoyed reading your post - thanks!

  2. Hi Candy -- I did a quick trolling of the internet yesterday and there are so many places to buy the beans affordably. I was amazed. In fact, I likely could have saved going that route but I still got a good deal with the vanilla bean man. And the opportunity was too great/odd to pass up at that moment.

    Good luck and thanks for stopping by!


  3. Fantastic photos. I confess vanilla bean envy.

  4. What a great find! I can't believe the man set up his stand in rural KY instead of an urban area.

    What I think you ought to do now is sell this lovely stuff. I'll take a pint. How much $$$$$?

  5. I meant to ask you where you got those white plastic jar lids. A friend gave me a couple of them several years ago and I have looked everywhere for more of them. They are such handy things to have in the kitchen.

  6. Joberta, Christmas is coming (and your birthday!). Meanwhile, those plastic jar lids I think are available at Misty Mountain, Walmart or on-line. Ball makes them They are VERY handy and I use them all the time to store stuff in the fridge (I try to avoid plastic if possible).

    The guy was working for Wilson's and happened to have them for sale (I think someone in Nancy or nearby used to have an on-line spice business). Sunny Valley sells them, individually, but they aren't the big, fat Tahitian ones! You just want to chew on them!

  7. Thanks for the info. I'll look for them at Misty Mountain. I love mine and have wished for more. They're great when you open a jar of home-canned jam and don't want to put the original lid and ring back on.

  8. Coming to this post late, but I'm just hearing about how easy making vanilla extract is! Now that it has been a while have you had a chance to sample your extracts? If so, which alcohol do you think made the best?

  9. Does the different type of alcohol change the flavor of the extract and can you tell me the differences in the flavors? Thanks. My husband keeps the woodland reserve around but I keep seeing vodka to make it.

  10. Hi Heather and all, I have not decanted the vanilla yet. Will be experimenting with it this week (and after Christmas) in various recipes (I thought even basic sugar cookie doughs using a different vanilla in each). Will definitely be doing a follow-up on the various alcohols in January. Someone told me that it doesn't matter: cheap vodka is fine. Well, I had to find out for myself!

    Thanks for posting and come back in a few weeks or so for the results (less, hopefully)! Best, Catherine

  11. Hi all: VODKA as a vanilla base, definitely. I'll report more soon. I'm back on the Internet more often as we got DSL a month ago at the farm. Yeah!

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