Vanilla Extract

I’ve waited patiently for 10 months as my Vanilla Extract slowly steeped. I waited and waited for it to transform in the richly-dark, extravagantly-decedent vanilla that as I’ve wanted, but it just hasn’t happened. Don’t get me wrong the flavor is good (and the aroma is heavenly), but it’s slightly less potent than store-bought McCormick’s. After waiting so long I am somewhat disappointed that the Higher Intensity (Recipe #3 and #4) didn’t completely outshine McCormick’s. I guess there is a reason why McCormick’s is so expensive (and is Cook’s Illustrated vanilla extract of choice). So, I am now moving on to the same step that saved by last batch of vanilla extract from 2010; using a fresh set of beans to increase the potency.

Extract needs to be double extracted

Extract needs to be double extracted

After 4 years of experimenting with different recipes and techniques, the lessons of my project are……….

MORE BEANS EQUALS MORE FLAVOR. After experimenting with 8 difference recipes, it is clear that being stingy with your beans will yield worthless vanilla extract. But also, adding more beans only helps up to a point. There is a point of diminishing returns, beyond which you are throwing your beans away. In my opinion, that point appears to be recipe #3, between 150% and 165% of the minimum FDA-Formula. Extracting more flavor requires new techniques.

DOUBLE DUNK YOUR BEANS.  This is the secret step. Don’t throw away those used beans! Even after you have already used your beans to create an extract, they still have more flavor to give. Cut up your beans into 1″ segments and pre-soak them in enough vodka to make your next batch. Allow them to just sit for a year (or two) until you’re ready to make your next batch. The head-start will yield otherwise unachievable results. If this is your first batch, I still think that you need to swap out the beans for new beans after a few months. I was unable to match store-bought potency without using two sets of beans during the extract process.

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 when I first it 4 years ago that I will probably never buy extract-grade beans again. And when I want them for other purposes, extract beans just won’t made the grade. Besides, the end result is cheap enough where I don’t really care if I pay 75-cents versus 45-cents per ounce.

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE. Those internet recipes that tell you to wait just a week or two are wrong (including Chris Kimball). After 2 months, you can begin to use your steeping bottle in recipes. While waiting beyond 4 to 6 months won’t do any harm, such extended periods of time won’t help the extract to become any more intense. If it is not strong enough after 6 months, switch your beans and use the old beans to pre-steep your next batch.

And the winner is……….

RECIPE #3. For the winning recipe I used 6 beans weighing 1-3/8-ounces plus 7-1/3-oz vodka, equaling 166% of the minimum FDA-strength. The winning recipe cost just 75-cents per ounce to make. My supermarket charges $17 for a 4-oz bottle of McCormick’s, and $25 for a 8-oz bottle; roughly 4 to 5 times the cost of home-made vanilla extract.  However, if your not willing to invest the 4 to 6 months (and the $25) into the process, there are certainly less expensive places to buy Vanilla than your supermarket.

Other final thoughts……….

  • 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 (still there are additional steps you can take to re-hyrdate them). I think Vanilla extract could be made from dry-ish beans, but they are more difficult to slice open and remove the caviar; possibly dangerously difficult.  Personally, my experience with old and tough beans was terrible. While it ultimately boils down to the quality of the final extract that most concerns me, fresh beans are simply a joy to work with. I made the current year’s (2013) batch of vanilla from wonderfully fresh beans.
  • BEAN COUNT. Just as with shrimp, vanilla beans are sold based upon their size, with lower number per pound being more expensive. It takes, on average, 100 “Grade A” vanilla beans to equal one pound. The average number of extract-grade (“Grade B”) vanilla beans is 140 to 160 per pound. If your bean provider isn’t up front then I recommend contacting your seller before placing your order to ensure that you aren’t surprised.
  • THE PERFECT BOTTLES for gift are here. The amber helps protect the vanilla from light.
  • MINIMUM FDA-STRENGTH for vanilla extract . anything less is just vanilla flavored booze.




14 Responses to Vanilla Extract

  1. David says:

    I switched to vanilla paste a little while back based on a recommendation from the Pioneer Woman. Have you ever tried it?

    • No, but I think I’ve heard of it. Is it essentially the vanilla “caviar” mashed into a paste?

      • David says:

        That’s a fair description. It’s in essentially corn syrup, which adds a small amount of sweetness, but the vanilla flavor is much, much more intense. I use it exclusively, especially when flavoring things like yogurt.

    • Sonya says:

      David, I read about vanilla paste on and thought you might be interested in what they had to say 🙂 CI recommends vanilla paste as being best in puddings and crème brulee (they liked it better than vanilla extract). From their 2003 issue: “If panna cotta-or custards or pastry cream-is in your repertoire, vanilla paste is the way to go. Second only to vanilla bean (and a very close second at that), the vanilla paste gave the panna cotta a robust vanilla flavor with no “boozy bite,” a consistent complaint about the third-place panna cotta made with extract. Like the sample made with vanilla bean, the panna cotta made with vanilla paste had flecks of vanilla seeds-in fact, the two samples were hard to tell apart. While vanilla extract is certainly sufficient in these recipes, you can do better. If you make a lot of custards, consider trying vanilla paste—it’s nearly as good as a whole bean and easier to use.”

      I also heard them mention vanilla paste on America’s Test Kitchen radio and made a note. In 2012, they said: “For custards, you really couldn’t beat the paste itself. It came in second place to almost what you scrape out of the inside of a vanilla bean, which was the best, by far, but this came in second. It didn’t have that same boozy flavor that the vanilla extract can give, put into custards.”

      P.S. They also mentioned vanilla powder as being best in cakes and cookies. “While vanilla extract is certainly sufficient in these recipes, you can do better. If you bake cakes and cookies galore (especially recipes where the flavor of vanilla is front and center), then vanilla powder is an excellent option.” They carry both at my local Whole Foods for $9.99 each.

  2. Sonya says:

    Awesome information! I make my own, too, but will be following your tested formula from now on! I will also switch from grade B to better beans. Thanks very much!!

  3. Tim says:

    Thanks for the information. I was thinking about trying Absolute vanilla flavored vodka as a base to increase intensity. Have you tried this?

    • Hi, No I’ve only tried plain, flavorless vodka. It might help, but I am trying to make it all on my own. I’m pretty sure that swapping out for fresh beans is the trick. It worked for me a few years ago. I’ll keep it in mind, though, as it seems like I need quite a few backup plans. lol


  4. I Wilkerson says:

    Great tip on the second set of beans. I had already figured out that standard recipes aren’t strong enough and added some more beans, but still wasn’t satisfied. Going down to swap out beans now!

  5. Sonya says:

    What are your thoughts on Tahitian beans? I just made extract with them, and they smell like raisins instead of what I vaguely recall being a different smell with the Madagascar ones. Do you happen to know anything about the difference this might make in extract? Thanks in advance 🙂

    • Hi Sonya, coincidentally after more than a year in the making, I just bottled up my vanilla and am giving most of it away for Christmas. (So much so that I wish I was a little more selfish. lol)

      I have never made extract with Tahitian beans, but heard that it makes a more floral vanilla (almost cherry-like). It is somewhat less traditional, but I have heard it is nevertheless wonderful.

      I hope you have a Merry Christmas, and thanks for following my culinary adventures.

      • Sonya says:


        What a funny coincidence! I know what you mean about perhaps wishing you had a bit more for yourself, but it is a wonderful gift!

        You’re very welcome, and thank-you so much for taking the time to write this blog – we all love to read it, and learn from you and each other! Merry Christmas!

        Thanks for the information about the Tahitian beans!! I think I’ll try some of it out in a recipe where I can (maybe) taste the difference, before using it in all of my other recipes.

  6. Sonya says:

    Hi! I have a question re: “And the winner is……….
    RECIPE #3. For the winning recipe I used 6 beans weighing 1-3/8-ounces plus 7-1/3-oz vodka, equaling 166% of the minimum FDA-strength.” How does this compare strength-wise to McCormick’s? It occurred to me that I don’t actually want to make anything stronger than theirs, personally, so that I can follow my recipes just as they’re written. I’d love your thoughts on that!

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