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.
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.