Today dear readers, you will thank me for this post. With the following home-made vanilla recipe, you will not only save money, but you will come to appreciate how valuable it is to know just what it is you are eating. Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking “I don’t have time for this”or “Why make it when I can just run to the store and pick some up.” or “I still have a little bottle that’s been in the cabinet for years and I hardly ever use it” Well today I’m going to tell you why that innocent little brown bottle lurking in the shadows of your spice shelf may have secrets as deep and as dark as the brown glass concealing them. I’ll also talk about the flavor of real vanilla, and how versatile this wonderfully complex yet under-appreciated flavor can be. After reading this you may want to throw away your store bought extract and instead pick up the simple ingredients to make your own. What is there not to love when it comes to vanilla? It is so often we give vanilla a negative comparison describing it as plain or uninteresting. This is really unfortunate as it is quite a special flavor which pairs nicely with many different tastes. Of course you know it goes great in sweet desserts like pastry cream (crème patissiere), Italian Bavarian cream (Bavarese), poached pears, ice cream, soufflés; but what you may not know is that it pairs nicely with savory foods as well. Imagine vanilla alongside lobster, mushrooms, or tomatoes. It tastes great with strong cheeses such as emmental, gruyère, parmesean or swiss, and compliments spices such as bay laurel and caraway. Just writing about it makes me want to embark on a culinary excursion to taste all the possible combinations.
The word vanilla comes from the Spanish vainilla, meaning “little sheath” or “little pod”. Vanilla beans come from an orchid which is native to Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs used it to accent the flavor of chocolate drinks. The Mexican emperor, Moctezuma II, introduced vanilla to the Spanish explorer Cortes, who brought it to Europe in the 16th century. In 1602, a chemist for Queen Elizabeth I suggested that vanilla could be used alone as a flavoring. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because its cultivation is very labor intensive and the seed pods must be picked by hand. Pure vanilla extract consist of only two ingredients, vanilla beans and alcohol. Higher-grade commercial extracts often contain various additives including corn syrup, glucose, propolyne glycol and food coloring. Most people buy generic vanilla, (I must admit, I’ve used it too) but most of the cheaper brands don’t even contain actual vanilla at all, but a synthetic substitute misleadingly called vanillin. The synthetic flavoring known as vanillin is actually a byproduct lignin, extracted from wood pulp. That’s right, it has more in common with your Ikea furniture or a post-it note than an actual vanilla bean. To be fair, the lignin based process is hazardous to the environment, it is more common nowadays to produce it from the petrochemical materian known as guaiacol, which is modified to fool your tastebuds by a process called oxidative decarboxylation. This is a lot to take in, I know… but there is a better and healthier way for you to enjoy real, actual vanilla extract. The following recipe is easy to make and is a lovely gift to give your loved ones. Here, I will break down the cost of making your own, as compared to buying it in a shop.
750ml Vodka – 5,00 euros / $6.76
12 Vanilla beans – 2 beans per package – 6 x1,10=6,60 euros / $9.00
Bottle – free (it was an empty rum bottle from my husbands birthday gift)
Total 11,60 euros / $15.75, which breaks down to $0.62 per ounce, quite a bit cheaper than store bought!
Not bad, huh? Think of it as a way of using natural products without all the corn syrup and wood pulp or petroleum byproducts. Now, I know a few of you out there may be thinking at this point “Wait, I’m going to be putting booze in my meals and desserts?!?” The fact is, if you are one of those people out there who already spend $10+ on a bottle of good commercial grade vanilla extract, you already are. Rest assured though, when you cook or bake with alcohol it will evaporate leaving behind only the delicious flavor of vanilla. I use vodka, but feel free to try it with bourbon, rum, or brandy. Each has its own flavors to contribute and the end result will be even more complex.
750 ml of 40% Alcohol (Vodka, Bourbon, Rum or Brandy with a 70-80 proof. Try not to use the super cheap stuff!)
12-15 Whole vanilla beans (3 beans for every cup of alcohol)
Glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting cap or cork
Split the vanilla beans lengthwise with a sharp knife, exposing the seeds and pulp within. Some recipes call for you to scrape out the pulp inside the beans and some say it isn’t necessary. My first batch, I didn’t scrape and it turned out perfectly. This batch I did scrape and so far it looks great. So, I’ll leave it up to you. Once you prepared the vanilla beans, drop them in a glass bottle or jar.
Fill the bottle with the alcohol of your choice (I have always used Vodka, as it has little flavor of its own), leaving a 1/2 inch of headspace. Seal tightly and shake vigorously for 2-3 minutes.
Store the bottle or jar in a cool dark space (such as the back of a kitchen cabinet) and shake once a week for 8-10 weeks. Since I didn’t scrape my vanilla beans in my first batch, I noticed from the shaking I did once a week, that it tended to release those bits from the vanilla beans.
Note: The hardest part about this recipe is patience but I promise you, it’ll be worth it. And because there is nothing artificial, no chemicals, and no unnecessary ingredients, you can feel free to double up in your recipes without creating the bitter flavor that cheap vanilla will.
Make sure to use the extract within a year of the day you made it.
Go ahead and leave the vanilla beans in the bottle as you use it. It will continue to extract the flavor as times goes on. For your second batch, you can just add a few fresh beans to the bottle and top it off with more alcohol, the older beans will continue to add flavor and richness.
Since there is a high alcohol content, it won’t spoil or develop bacteria.