Vanilla at home

Did you know that vanilla was introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in the early sixteenth century? He brought back vanilla and cacao beans from his conquest of Mexico, where the Aztecs mixed them into a special drink. I won’t dwell on what else Cortes got up to in Mexico (probably questionable given our modern view of the rapacious conquistadors) but he certainly made an important contribution to the baker’s pantry!

The reason I’m sharing this useless fact is because of an intriguing post I read at Chocolate & Zucchini about homemade vanilla extract. I adore good vanilla, but it had never crossed my mind that you could make your own. Um, I don’t even think I knew that extracts were made with alcohol. Hey, I just never looked at the ingredient list.

Now that my eyes had been opened to this possibility, I knew I wanted to have a go. Not only is store bought vanilla extract very expensive, but this project would give a purpose to the litre of vodka at the back of the cupboard that it would otherwise take us three a half years to consume.

While the actual process is absurdly easy, I decided to embark on a bit of internet research first and discovered all sorts of tips for extract making:

You can split the beans open for a stronger tasting extract or leave them intact for a lighter flavour.

You can add a bit of corn syrup to the mix, which apparently adds sweetness and helps the flavours to develop.

You can use vodka, which most traditional recipes call for, though some people think it’s too harsh. Instead try rum or bourbon, which my sister has heard produces a better flavour.

You can leave the extract for two months to mature, then strain it to get rid of the ‘bits’ before use. Or simply top up the container with more alcohol and beans whenever it seems necessary – you can keep the same jar going for years. Possibly forever?

I think the moral of the story is that there are no hard and fast rules. Use whatever bean to alcohol ratio suits your tastes and be as finicky or as laidback as you like. You’ll still end up with a lovely homemade extract.

I love a strong vanilla flavour so I chose to split the beans open and scrape the seeds into the vodka before adding the pods. Now I’ll give it a good shake every few days for at least eight weeks before cracking it open for the first time. (Okay, I might have a sneaky sniff before then…)

I’ll keep you posted on my little vanilla experiment. And I hope you’ll try making your own in the meantime.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

2-4 vanilla beans, depending on their size and your taste preference
1 cup vodka (or substitute rum, bourbon or another high proof alcohol)

Take a clean glass bottle or jar with a lid. Sterilize it if you wish by boiling in water for 10 minutes.

Fill the jar with the vodka and add the vanilla beans. For a stronger vanilla extract, slit the vanilla beans first with a small, sharp knife and scrape out the seeds, adding them to the jar along with the scraped-out pods.

Seal the jar and shake several times. Leave it in a cool, dark place, shaking every few days. The colour will become darker as time goes by and the extract will be ready to use after about eight weeks.

Top up the jar with extra alcohol and vanilla beans as required. You can remove and dry old beans, then add them to your sugar jar to make vanilla-scented sugar.