Friday, March 27, 2009


I thought I'd do a little home brewed vanilla extract primer, because I seem to retype these instructions somewhat regularly.

So - I'm a foodgeek. I brew my own vanilla extract. Yes, you can make your own vanilla extract. It's easy, it's inexpensive after the initial investment, and it's really, really good, especially if you like to bake. Well ok, if you don't like to bake, this is utterly useless to you and you can skip the whole post :-)

First - there's vanilla beans. You've probably seen them at the grocery store, with one or two sad little dried beans stuffed into a glass jar for an outrageous price. Just leave them alone. You'll thank me.

Buy your beans - in bulk - online. I buy through eBay from Vanilla Products USA, usually about a half pound or so at a time. They're reasonably priced (go do a search - you'll see) and great quality - a totally different beast than what you find in a grocery store. You don't need to buy the highest quality beans - I generally buy the cheaper ones, and am quite happy with them.

There are two basic types of vanilla beans. Madagascar Bourbons are robust in flavor and have loads of seeds. They're great for just about anything you want vanilla for. Tahitians are more "floral" in flavor and have fewer seeds. I like the Tahitians better for things like creme anglaise, pastry cream, ice cream base, creme brulee, etc. It's a personal preference - as inexpensive as they are on eBay, get a few of each and play with your food.

To make your own vanilla extract, you need: Vanilla beans + booze + time.

So let's say you bought yourself a half pound of beans from eBay. FYI, you want to store your beans as airtight as possible - I keep mine in a ziploc bag with the air squeezed out, then in a rubbermaid container, then in a dark cabinet. Air dries them out.

In addition to the beans, you need:

1. A glass foodsafe jar (dark glass if you have it, but Mason jars are cheap and work just fine). It's my understanding that plastic breaks down after a period of time so glass is better. You want something with a wide mouth so you can fish the beans out relatively easily at some point.

2. A dark cabinet where you can keep your extract while brewing.

3. Cheap a$$ rotgut vodka, enough to fill your jar - do not waste the good stuff on this, because the vanilla will take over any flavor the vodka may have. Save your Goose to marinate an olive.

4. Patience. That's the hard part.

So to get it started, make sure your jar is clean and dry. I start a fresh batch with about 6-8 beans, depending on how generous you're feeling with your bean stash. Split the beans, toss pods and seeds into the jar, and fill the jar with vodka. Screw the cap on tightly, and stick it in the cupboard.

Every time you use a bean, throw the scraped pod into the jar of brew. If you use the pod to poach in cream for a pastry cream type product, rinse it off before you add it to the brew. You can also stick the pod in your sugar jar for a week for vanilla sugar...but then still add the pod to the brew. So what I'm saying here is use your vanilla beans as normal, but instead of throwing out the pod, you're going to recycle it into vanilla extract. Thrifty, eh?

And in between - ignore the jar. Let it sit in the dark and do it's thing. You'll notice the color deepen, and when you open it, the vanilla aroma will get stronger and stronger. How long it will take for it to be ready to use depends on your pods to vodka ratio, and how often you add more pods, but it will probably take a couple of months to get a usable strength at first. Basically, you'll be able to tell by smell and a little taste when it's ready.

I siphon some off the "mother jar" into a smaller jar to use, then add more vodka to the mother jar. In the year I've been brewing, I did sieve out the original beans and started again with fresh ones. I find the home brewed vanilla to have a sweetness to it, and a wonderful aroma.

And if you're REALLY adventurous, you can make your own lemon, lime, and orange extract much the same way. Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel the zest off the citrus fruit (avoid the pith), add to a jar, cover with vodka, then either trim the peel off the fruit or halve and juice as normal.

Happy brewing!

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