Homemade Vanilla Extract Shootout

It adds such rich flavor that for every recipe I make using vanilla, I automatically double it; one teaspoon always becomes two.  This rule has never let me down. I guess anything that costs $4 per ounce is going to taste great. While McCormick’s won CI’s March 2009 Vanilla Extract taste test, six months later Chris Kimball found a better (and cheaper) alternative; homemade. Don’t worry it’s the easiest recipe on my blog (so far). The only requirement is patience.

 

Day 1: In order from left to right; recipe 1, 2, 3 and 4.

 

Actually, Chris Kimball has two vanilla extract recipe; one from 1993, and another from 2009 (The later heats the vodka to speed the extraction process). As I have been waiting patiently for my internet Vanilla Beans to arrive in the mail, I’ve been doing some research on the topic. Here’s what I found: most online recipes vary from Chris Kimball’s recipes in two important ways. (1) extraction time: the consensus on the internet is that it should between 2 and 6 months; not 1 week, and (2) most recipes call for 3 beans per 1-cup of vodka; not 1-1/3 beans (his 1993 recipe uses 2 beans). But even at 3 beans per cup of alcohol, that’s barely 50% of what the FDA has set a minimum standard for vanilla extract.  The FDA minimum is 0.834 oz. of bean per cup (8 ounces) of 35 percent alcohol (70 proof). And when you consider that most bakers prefer double strength extract (though Chris Kimball doesn’t like the double-strength, see How string is your Vanilla?)

The four recipe variations that I made are:

  1. Chris Kimball’s 2009 Recipe. 1-1/3 beans per cup of vodka. I placed the finished bottle in pan of 125-degree water for 1 hour, per Recipe #1 only. Extraction time 1 week, after which time I will filter the vanilla.
  2. Chris Kimball’s 1993 Recipe. 2 beans per cup of vodka. Extraction time 1 week, after which time I will create a small filtered sample, but allow the remaining to continue to steep per the CI instructions.
  3. Internet Recipe. 3 beans per cup of vodka. Extraction time 2 to 6 months, after which time the vanilla will be filtered.
  4. FDA Single-Strength Recipe. 0.83-oz per cup (about 7 beans). Undefined extraction time. I will sample at various stages, and filter if it ever becomes too potent.

Generally, I followed the same instructions for each recipe, except where noted:

  • Use a sharp paring knife to cut lengthwise down the center of the vanilla beans.
  • Scrape the caviar out of the pods. Put the vanilla beans (and caviar) in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.
  • Cover the beans completely with alcohol. Depending upon the jar being used, the beans may need to be cut in half to get the alcohol to cover the beans.
  • Tightly cover the jar and give it a shake.
  • Store in a cool dry place.  Give the bottle a good shake every week or so.

Not only do I intended to make a superior quality vanilla extract, but I also want to yield significant savings. Here’s the breakdown of costs:

  • I paid $8 for 1/4-lb of my internet vanilla beans, including shipping. All four recipes used a total of 3/4 ounces. So the beans portion of my vanilla extract only cost $1.50.
  • The vodka doesn’t have to be expensive; it contributes no flavor. I spent $11 on a 750-ml bottle (approx 25 ounces).
  • Like so many other things, the supermarket is the worst place to buy things. They charge $17 for a 4-oz bottle of McCormick’s,  and $25 for a 8-oz bottle. Also my supermarket sells whole vanilla beans for $7 per bean.
  • Doing the math, my 14-oz of vanilla extract cost me $7.60; for which McCormick’s would cost me $43; a 5-fold increase.

Over the next six months I will followup as the vanilla extract becomes “ready” and provide ratings at the various stages for each recipe. Recipe #1 will be ready in one week.

Rating: (still unknown).
Cost: $7.60 for 14-ounces of vanilla extract.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Very Low.
Started: 6:00 PM.  Ready:  7:00 PM. (including all 4 recipes)

Additional considerations:

  1. There are two main varieties on beans used to produce vanilla extract: Bourbon and Tahitian. The Bourbon refers to the Bourbon Islands, located near Madagascar. Bourbon beans do not typically use bourbon (the alcohol) to extract the vanilla flavor. I selected Bourbon beans because they have a more traditional taste profile. Tahitian beans have a more floral and fruity flavor with hints of anise.
  2. The FDA defines Vanilla Extract to contain at least 35% alcohol. Theoretically any alcohol can be used; rum, bourbon or brandy is sometimes used. I opted to use Vodka because of it’s neutral flavor. I used 80 proof (40%) because that’s what I have left over from my pie crust recipe.
  3. Most commercial extracts also add sugar, which takes away the natural bitter aftertaste. If you buy/make it without sugar it will keep indefinitely. Besides all recipes in which you use your extract will also add sugar, so there is little reason to add incorporate sugar into your extract.
  4. Vanilla keeps for at least 10 years without any loss in potency or flavor; though McCormick’s puts an expiry date about 2 years out. If properly stored in cool, dark place, most say that it only improves with age, and any fine red wine.
  5. It appears that the average number of extract grade vanilla beans is 140 to 160 per pound. My beans were a little scrawny coming in at 240 per pound, so I adjusted the recipe accordingly. Using 1.6 of my beans for every one bean called for in the recipe. I recommend contacting your seller before placing your order to ensure that you aren’t surprised.
  6. A helpful website I used while waiting for my beans to arrive in the mail.
  7. The perfect bottles for gift are here. The amber helps protect the vanilla from light.
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8 Responses to Homemade Vanilla Extract Shootout

  1. lorri says:

    I am looking forward to reading updates, when you start cooking with the various homemade versions and determining which taste the best.

  2. […] Homemade Vanilla Extract – Week 1. After a week, some of my 4 vanilla extract recipes are “officially” ready; Recipe #1 (Chris Kimball’s 2009 Recipe) and Recipe #2 (his 1993 Recipe). During this week I have shaken all four jars daily. Today, per the recipe, I filtered Recipe #1 through cheesecloth which halts the extraction process. It’s flavor will not improve from here on out. Recipe #2 will not be filtered so will continue to mature.  (See Last Week’s Post for all 4 Recipes) […]

  3. David says:

    How are you testing the completed product?

  4. Heather says:

    I was just wondering if you ever tasted/compared the finished products. Was Chris Kimball’s Recipe #1 better than store bought?

  5. Amy says:

    My family has been making homemade vanilla for years but we always use Meyers dark rum as the alcohol with at least two vanilla beans. We have tried a vodka base for comparison and found it very disappointing by comparison. The dark rum brings a beautiful color and rich flavor. The rum taste fades into the background after six months or so and the vanilla really shines.

    • OK, I will give that a try. I have been letting my vanilla steep for a while, and I still feel it’s not ready. It has vanilla flavor but it lacks the depth that I get with high-end store bought vanilla.

      Thanks for the advice,
      Mark

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