So, you want to make your own vanilla extract. There’s lots of reasons to do so: it’s fun, you get the satisfaction of making something yourself, you get to choose what to base your extract on, and it’s less expensive than buying extract already made.
Now that you know it’s not a silly idea, how do you do it?
Vanilla extract is a tincture, which means it is an herb extracted into alcohol and water. (It doesn’t have to be alcohol…see below for more on that.) Tinctures take time to make: it is a slow process for the water/alcohol soluble parts of the vanilla bean to dissolve into the base. There are ways of speeding this up, I’ll cover this later, but for us, there’s no substitute for letting the process proceed at its own pace.
Here’s the Recipe We Use
To make vanilla extract, you’ll need a few things:
- Bottle or jar with an airtight lid or stopper just large enough for the vanilla and the alcohol
- Alcohol, should be 80 proof spirits (such as vodka or rum) or 40% organic ethyl alcohol
- Vanilla beans
- Funnel (probably)
- sharp knife and cutting board
- measuring cup and possibly a scale
The ratio of vanilla to alcohol is 1 ounce of vanilla pods to 10 ounces (by volume) of your alcohol. This means that if you have 1 oz. of vanilla pods, it’s going to make 1 1/4 cups (10 fluid ounces) of extract. This is the ratio set by the FDA (the agency that regulates food in the United States) for a single-fold extract. If you want to make double-fold, use twice as much vanilla.
In metric units, that’s 28g vanilla beans to 300mL alcohol.
To make the extract, use the knife to slit the beans lengthwise: just cut through the skin of the pod, no need to cut it in two. When all the beans are slit, cut them into 1‑inch pieces. This is where the sharp knife will help: vanilla pods are fibrous and a little tough.
Put the cut vanilla into your bottle. Measure your alcohol, then pour the alcohol into the bottle. Put on the cap and give it a little shake. Don’t forget to label the jar with the date, you’re likely to forget the date by the time it’s ready.
To store the extract while it’s extracting, I suggest you put it somewhere where you’ll see it now and again. Give it a shake occasionally, this will help the base pull the flavor out of the beans. Take care not to let the sun shine on your extract, also it should be somewhere room temp or even warm if you live somewhere cold. A cold extraction will take longer to complete.
When Will it be Done?
We have found that the optimal time for the extraction is 4 months. This is at the room temps we have here in Hawaii: mid-70s and 80s ºF. In our experience here, 3 months is the point of diminishing returns, and at 4 months, everything that can be extracted has been extracted. We know that at 4 months the extraction is complete because we dry the spent vanilla after extraction and the fragrance left in that vanilla is barely detectable.
If you’re not in Hawaii and you’re not doing this in summer, you’ll probably want to give it more time. Maybe something like 5–6 months if your room temps are more in the 60s ºF. Or you may want to find a warmer pace for it.
There is no harm in going longer, you may even want to just leave the beans in there as you use it.
An Instant Extraction Method
There is a way to speed this up, we don’t do this here, but if you’re feeling experimental or just want instant gratification, you can use the pressure cooker method. It’s best, for safety reasons, to do this in an electric pressure cooker such as an instant pot.
You prepare the beans/alcohol as above, only using canning jars. It’s better to split the recipe in half and use a couple of 8‑oz. jars instead of a quart jar. This means you can try two different spirits for your base if you want. Place the jars (with lids only finger-tight) on the steam rack in the pressure cooker. There needs to be some water in there to build pressure. Pressure cook it for an hour, then let it slow release for another hour. Let the (very hot!) jars cool before opening them…this is important, you don’t want to release vaporized alcohol.
A quick internet search will provide several more detailed descriptions of the process if you are looking for that.
Extracts can be made without alcohol, the most common way to do this is with glycerine. You can get this online from suppliers such as Mountain Rose.
A glycerine extraction is going to take a lot longer to complete. The alcohol plays an important role in the extraction, it acts as a solvent to break up the gooey insides of the bean so the flavors can be absorbed into the water. Without that solvent in there, the process relies only on the water to dissolve the plant material and extract the flavor. The glycerine acts as a preservative, you need that since extracting into water alone wouldn’t be safe.
To make a glycerine-based extract, use 6.5 oz. pure glycerine, 3.5 oz. filtered, boiled (to sterilize it) water and your 1 oz. of vanilla beans. From there, it’s the same as the alcohol-based extract: keep it somewhere warm but out of the sun for several months. I’d recommend 6 months or more to really get all the flavor into the extract.
There is another approach to making an alcohol-free extract if you’re less sensitive to the alcohol. Start with an alcohol-based extract, then mix that with about 1/3 the volume water or glycerine and gently heat it. Don’t boil it, 175ºF is the temp you’re looking for. Once the alcohol smell is gone, you’ve got an alcohol-free extract. You’ll want to refrigerate this, since it may have too much water to be safe. The result may be a bit weaker than full-strength extract.