Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.
Homemade Vanilla Extract Recipe
Vanilla extract is one of those mysterious products that no one quite fully understands. Some believe that it is literally pure vanilla juice from the vanilla plant, or possibly some complicated infusion process done in a factory. Others believe that it's not real at all, but some fabricated flavoring from the food companies. Each of these has some measure of truth to it. Whatever your understanding, it seems to be widely believed that it's good for you.
With vanilla extract being used in the majority of my baking recipes (especially these last couple of months) with the tag "homemade preferred" on it, I've had many requests for my recipe. I'm actually not sure why I haven't posted it already, as it's so incredibly easy. I've been making my own extracts for a number of years now.
Did you know it's possible to make this wonderful ingredient in two simple steps? You only need two ingredients: cheap vodka and quality vanilla beans. I'm sure everyone can get ahold of cheap vodka. In some states, like Texas and Arizona, you can simply go to your nearest grocery store and buy it off of the liquor aisle. But in others, you will have to go to a liquor store.
I've gotten some really funny looks going into a liquor store with my two small children and purchasing vodka, I'll tell you. But if it makes you feel any better, you'll only need to go once every few years. Seriously! Before I share the recipe though, I feel like you deserve an explanation.
Imitation Vanilla From the Store
There are a great many imitation flavorings on the market in any given store. The producers of these products would like you to believe that you are getting the honest to goodness flavoring that you are looking for, although, if you look closely enough, you'll see that you're getting so much more than you bargained for in each bottle.
Vanilla is created using a substance called vanillin that typically comes from the vanilla bean plant itself. However, with imitation vanilla that you generally find at the grocery store under a variety of brands, what you are getting has absolutely nothing to do with real vanilla beans. In fact, far less than 1% of the vanilla on the market in the United States is pure vanilla.
Not only is it made with synthetic vanillin, but it usually contains refined white sugar and other ingredients, some of which may be considered carcinogenic in the U.S. There are no label laws in many countries that produce vanilla extract, and those that have them don’t generally enforce them. You'd be really shocked what other ingredients some food producers get away with using to make their synthetic vanillin.
Most artificial vanilla flavoring is made from the by-products of wood pulp, but I'm sure you're familiar with another popular ingredient, called castoreum. This is a yellowish substance extracted from the anal glands of the North American beaver. (Gross, I know!) It's actually a pretty common ingredient in many of your foods, simply labeled "natural flavoring." Some other "natural" vanilla flavors come from coal tar and cow poop. Both are pretty common. And if it is a caramel color, it has been dyed with caramel coloring (which also contains sugar) or other dyes. Yum!
Pure Vanilla Extract From the Store
In order to be considered "pure" vanilla extract on the label, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that the solution contains a minimum of 35% alcohol and 13.35 oz of vanilla beans per gallon. Pure vanilla extract is basically made by cutting open real vanilla beans and soaking them in a solution of 35% ethanol and the rest water.
However, what is not listed in the ingredients is the refined sugar, corn syrup, caramel color, and any other additives also added into your vanilla. Some companies include one or more of these ingredients on their labels, but most do not. Sugar and corn syrup are often used to mask the harsh notes of alcohol or to make the extract smell and taste better if the quality of the beans used were not good quality.
As you can see, although the packaging may say "pure vanilla extract," there may still be a variety of unnecessary ingredients included in your product. The only way to truly get nothing but real vanilla in your extract is to make it yourself. Thank goodness it's extremely easy to do so. I'll go into this more after sharing the recipe with you. Let me show you how I did it!
|Prep time||Ready in||Yields|
4 (8-oz) bottles of real vanilla extract
- 4 to 5 (8-ounce) glass bottles, with corks
- 1 large bottle of cheap vodka
- About 20 good quality vanilla beans, link below to purchase
- Cut each of your beans down the middle to release the vanilla flavoring in each pod. Drop 3 to 4 cut beans into each of your jars.
- Pour vodka over the top, completely submerging the beans in each jar. Fill the jars almost to the top and cork them.
How to Rotate Bottles
Now here's the trick. I suggested that you make four to five bottles so that you could rotate through them throughout the next year, using one bottle every three to four months or so. I happen to do a great deal of baking and I currently only have four bottles that I rotate through each year. But how do I get started, you ask? Great question.
When you make all of your bottles, they will all initially have the same date on them and all be clear because the vanilla will not have had any time to leach out into the alcohol. So I would personally set them all up high on a shelf for at least the first three months. After that time, you can start using the very first bottle. It will be pretty weak at first, but the idea is that you are getting to use your homemade vanilla. It will likely take a few months to get through the very first bottle, and all of the other bottles will continue steeping.
When you've finished with the first bottle, either fill it again with vodka, relabel it with the new date and year that you are making it, and put it back up on the shelf to be after all of your other bottles, or add another cut bean or two and then refill it. At that point, grab one of your other original bottles and use away. Eventually, you will get to the point that you are back to using the very first bottle again, and it will be really dark. Just make sure you are refilling each bottle as you finish it, relabel it and put it back up on the shelf so it's ready for you in about a year.
The ideal time for each bottle to steep is one year for the best flavor, but the longer they sit, the better they will get.
But What About the Alcohol?
I've been asked many times if the alcohol used in your vanilla flavoring is dangerous to use in your cooking. After all, you are using it to feed your friends, family, and more importantly, your kids. It's perfectly safe. The only purpose for the alcohol is to pull the vanillin out of the vanilla beans to give you the yummy vanilla flavoring you are looking for. When you cook your foods, the alcohol evaporates, leaving just the vanilla flavoring behind.
Suffice to say, I do not recommend eating vanilla extract of any kind raw. Do not put it on your infant's teeth for teething pain, or you will be taking the chance of giving them alcohol poisoning. Store-bought vanilla extract has the same risk if used raw. And I would not use vanilla in your no-bake cookies or treats, or the alcohol will not have a chance to cook out.
If it's just you eating it and you don't care, then go for it! But realize that your treats will have a little bit of alcohol in them, and may even taste that way, depending on how much you use. If you are adding vanilla to a hot sauce or recipe, like my homemade caramel sauce, that's fine, the hot sauce will burn off the alcohol, too.
How to Find Quality Vanilla Beans
Now that you know how quick and easy it is to make some healthy, authentic vanilla extract at home, I hope you'll get started right away. Start by ordering some quality vanilla beans (check on eBay). The most common kind of quality vanilla bean is the Madagascar vanilla bean. They typically run about $8 a piece at the store and online, but I found them for a great deal on eBay. The deal says 10 beans for $26, but they always toss in a few extra to my bag each time. This last time they sent me 18 vanilla beans! I've already started using them!
Then go grab yourself the largest bottle of the cheapest vodka you can find. I think I paid $5 or so for mine, but I may be wrong. I bought it so long ago. And you don't have to just stick with vodka if you prefer another flavor in your vanilla. Vodka is a very neutral alcohol that will simply do its job and leave only the vanilla flavor behind. But if you'd like to flavor them with some bourbon or rum, go for it!
I know it takes a bit of time to get started with your extract supply, but it's well worth it. And the sooner you start, the sooner you'll have a nice rotation going. I've been using these same bottles for about five years now. Every now and then, I'll dump out all of the used vanilla beans, wash the bottle thoroughly, and start over again with fresh beans. I know it's time to start over again when the beans start shredding in the bottle of the bottle and leave vanilla pod specks in all of my food.
Good luck! I'd love to know your thoughts and experiences. Leave me a comment below!
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© 2018 Victoria Van Ness