Better Homemade Vanilla Extract

December 8, 2013

A few years ago, I made a quart of homemade vanilla extract, based upon 4 different recipes. I considered all 4 recipes a failure, and abandoned the project after a few months. I added a bunch more vanilla beans, and was able to salvage my investment and produce enough “acceptable” vanilla extract, which has lasted for a few years. The last of my homemade vanilla extract is now gone, and I am ready to revisit my efforts to make a better vanilla extract.

After just 4 days, only Chris Kimball's recipe looks weak.

After just 4 days, only Chris Kimball’s recipe looks weak.                  (Recipe 1 to 4 are in order left to right)

The lessons I learned from my first experiment are:

  1. MORE BEANS EQUALS MORE FLAVOR. Within a few short weeks it became clear that the only real determinant in the strength of the extract is the amount of beans used. More beans equals more flavor. While I had tried Chris Kimball’s 2009 method of heating the vodka prior to adding the vanilla beans, that technique had absolutely no affect on the final outcome. Because the extract process takes three to six months, any increase in temperature lasting only a few hours will obviously have no real effect.
  2. AVOID EXTRACT-GRADE BEANS. While the consensus on the internet is that “Extract-Grade” or “Grade B” beans are most suited to make vanilla extract (mostly for cost reasons), I was so disappointed with their quality that I will probably never buy extract-grade beans again. Last time my extract-grade beans (150 beans per pound) cost $16 per 1/2-lb. “Grade A” beans require approximately 100 beans to make one pound. Even better, the beans that I am using today are 68 beans per pound, which cost me $28 per 1/2-lb.  While costing 75% more, I definitely wanted to see if the higher-quality beans were worth the extra cost. So far, I am thrilled with them. Here is a link showing the description of the beans I bought.
  3. USE FRESH BEANS. While vanilla extract can last forever, the beans themselves seem to remain fresh for about a year. They tend to dry out, but there are still additional steps you can take to re-hyrdate them. Vanilla extract can be made from dry-ish beans, but it is a question of the quality of the final extract that most concerns me. My experience with old and tough beans was terrible, so I wanted to try making the extract from the current year’s crop (2013).

Just as last time, I am making four recipes to evaluate how to obtain the best vanilla extract. The recipes that I am making now are generally much stronger than my last attempt. You can see the summary of this second round here. The four recipes I am follow are here:

  1. Recipe 1: (60% of FDA):  I wanted to give Chris Kimball’s 1993 recipe another try, using my high-quality beans. These super-size beans mean that his recipe represents 60% of the minimum FDA-strength, whereas using two extract-grade beans represented just 25% of the FDA-minimum. Today, I used 2 beans (1/2-ounce) and 8-oz of vodka. Using my half-pound of beans, I could make a total of 1 gallon vanilla extract (or 32 four-ounce-bottles).  The cost is 25-cents per ounce, or $1 for a 4-oz bottle.
  2. Recipe 2: (120% of FDA) It’s the closest to regular FDA-Strength, and want to see if the higher quality beans make this recipe acceptable. I used 1 ounce of beans and 8-oz of vodka, whereas the FDA requires only 0.83-oz beans per cup. Using my half-pound of beans, I could make a total of 64-ounces of vanilla extract; sixteen 4-oz-bottles. The cost is 46-cents per ounce, or $1.86 for a 4-oz bottle.
  3. Recipe 3: (166% of FDA)  Of the four recipes, this is the one that I’m most hoping works out. I want big vanilla flavor, but still to keep the cost down. I used 6 beans weighing 1-3/8-ounces plus 7-1/3-oz vodka. Using my half-pound of beans, this recipe will yield a total of 48-ounces of vanilla extract; or twelve 4-oz-bottles. The cost is 75-cents per ounce, or $3 for a 4-oz bottle.
  4. Recipe 4: (211% of FDA). Because recipe 3 does not represent a full doubling of the FDA requirements, and I know that bakers especially love to use double-strength vanilla, I wanted to include this option as an upper end. The recipe used 7 beans weighing 1-3/4-oz plus 7-oz vodka. Using my half-pound of beans, I could make a total of 32-ounces of vanilla extract; or eight double-strength 4-oz-bottles. The cost is $1.03 per ounce, or $4.13 for a 4-oz bottle.

Additional comments and considerations:

  1. Chris Kimball’s 1993 and 2009 recipes have both been removed from his website. Good riddance! While I’m still including a version of the 1993 recipe in this experiment, it is only remotely feasible based upon these super-sized beans. Realistically I think recipe 2 or 3 will be the ultimate victor in this shoot out.
  2. McCormick’s won Chris Kimball’s 2009 taste test, and is the most important company with regards to vanilla production (not just commercial brands). They control about 40% of the world trade of vanilla. I will use McCormick’s in my taste tests as this experiment continues.
  3. There are two main varieties on beans used to produce vanilla extract: Bourbon and Tahitian. Most vanilla extract is made using Bourbon beans. The Bourbon refers to Reunion Island, located near Madagascar, which was mostly called Bourbon Islands between 1649 and 1848. Bourbon beans do not typically use bourbon (the alcohol) to extract the vanilla flavor.
  4. Many commercial extracts also add sugar, which takes away the natural bitter aftertaste. Buying/making it without sugar will allow the extract to keep indefinitely. Plus all recipes in which you use your extract also add sugar, so there’s absolutely no reason to incorporate sugar into your extract.
  5. 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.
  6. I recommend contacting your seller about bean size before placing your order. If a potential bean vendor won’t tell you how many beans per pound, then don’t buy it. “Extract Grade” (a.k.a. “Grade B”) vanilla beans should be 140 to 160 per pound. “Grade A” requires about 100 beans to equal one pound.
  7. The FDA defines Vanilla Extract to contain at least 35% alcohol. I used 80 proof (40%) Vodka because of its neutral flavor, but theoretically any alcohol can be used; rum, bourbon or brandy is sometimes used. There is no benefit to using expensive vodka; I used 1.75 liter bottle of Svenka that cost me $13. I have read using significantly higher proof will hinder, rather than help, the extraction process.
  8. The perfect bottles for gift are here. The amber helps protect the vanilla from light.
  9. Cost of McCormick’s is about $4 per ounce, but most others are $2 per ounce. Based upon these super-high-quality beans, my FDA-strength cost about 50-cents per ounce, and my double-strength cost just $1 per ounce.

Finally, after you’ve finished your with your extract, you’re beans still have more to give. You have a couple of choices:

  1. You don’t need to filter your vanilla after the 6-month extraction process. You can just leave the beans in your extract for years, and it will only improve the flavor. The only downside is that there will be seeds floating around and included in your recipes. That isn’t a bad thing, but visually it is more pleasant to see the pure, dark liquid without anything floating around.
  2. After my last batch, I added some new vodka to a mason jar containing the used beans, then let it steep for nearly three years. I ended up with an extra 12-ounces of 60%-strength vanilla extract, pictured below.
  3. Chris Kimball tried to dry and grind the spent pods, but he was unhappy with malty flavor that the vanilla powder gave. He recommends sticking to extract and “new” beans.
  4. Lastly, people make vanilla sugar out of their spend beans. After slowly drying the beans in a very low oven, simply bury them in granulated sugar for a month. Here is an article, and Cook’s Country has a related article here.
Made re-using beans after they had already been extracted.

Made re-using beans after they had already been extracted.

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