Our Vanilla Extract Recipe

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.

Alcohol-Free Extract

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.