How to Make Vanilla Extract at Home

In Basically on a Budget, we’ll talk tips, ingredients, and recipes that’ll help you save money and eat well.

I cook a lot, bake a fair amount, and drink more flavored coffee beverages than I care to admit. Between testing recipes for my food and drink blog, EatDrinkDoWear, freelance projects, and keeping myself fed and caffeinated, I found myself running through, and running up a bill for, vanilla. Any time a recipe called for more than a scant teaspoon, I’d walk away feeling guilty—those tiny bottles are expensive, not to mention hit-or-miss in terms of flavor and quality.

One day I was searching for how to get the best bang for my buck after buying some VERY expensive Nielsen-Massey vanilla beans with a discount from my kitchen job. I settled on making homemade vanilla extract when I realized that with a few fresh vanilla beans, some cheap vodka, an airtight container, and a lot of patience, I could produce a never-ending jar of vanilla suitable for all my baking, cooking, and beverage needs. All I had to do was keep adding vodka and my vanilla supply would replenish before my eyes—a total game changer for me. Seriously, DIY vanilla is the gift that keeps on giving, and the method is pretty simple:

Cut 4–6 fresh vanilla beans open lengthwise, scooping out the seeds (or vanilla caviar, if you want to feel fancy) into an airtight container—I used a big 16-ounce mason jar so there was enough room for my vanilla experiment to grow over time. Add the bean hulls to your jar. For a decorative touch, you can use a tall glass bottle that showcases the whole bean, but chopping the beans and muddling them inside your jar actually speeds up the extraction process—ugly, but effective.

Pour enough vodka over the beans and seeds to cover them. Feel free to use the cheapest vodka you can find—all the flavor comes from the vanilla anyway. You can also substitute bourbon or rum, but I find that vodka, since it’s flavorless, offers the cleanest flavor. Whichever spirit you choose, use approximately 8 ounces of at least 70-proof alcohol per 4–6 vanilla beans (the same standards issued by the FDA).

Photo by Chelsie Craig, Food Styling by Pearl Jones 

Secure the lid on the jar and shake vigorously. Store in a cool, dark place, like a cabinet, for as few as two months, shaking daily for the first week or two and then occasionally after that, until the alcohol turns a rich brown color and smells of fragrant vanilla. For the best, most potent final product, you can let your extract bloom for up to six–12 months before using it.

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