For some reason, I am feeling particularly festive this year. I'm itching to get our tree up, to listen to Christmas music, to get into the holidays properly. Donna suggested that I brew a Christmas beer this year, and the idea captured my imagination. I have already brewed the base beer (a nice British winter warmer) that I plan to add holiday spices to. If it turns out, I'll print up some cool labels, wax the bottle caps, and give them away to spread some holiday cheer.
Holiday beer bottles, labeled and waxed.
To get my spices just right, I decided to make tinctures of fresh spices in a little vodka; this way, I can add drops to a glass of the base beer until I get the spice profile just right. I will then add the correct ratios to the keg, and (hopefully) have a really nice final product.
Dealing with those fresh spices got me wishing that I had some homemade vanilla extract again, so I decided to whip up a batch. While it sadly won't be ready in time for the holidays this year, it's still a lot of fun to do - and is a stupidly simple process. I thought that I'd share it with you folks here in a post.
First things first - to make good vanilla extract, you need quality vanilla beans. I've linked you to Amazon's vanilla bean page, as opposed to a particular listing, because honestly... there is a lot more variety than you may realize.
I'm a HUGE fan of Madagascar vanilla beans, as they have a decadent creamy flavor to them that I'm crazy about. However, beans do vary in flavor depending on the country of origin; Mexican vanilla is also very popular, and Tahitian vanilla has a unique floral spiciness to it that you may really enjoy.
If you're making vanilla extract, you can save a little money and get grade B (aka extract grade) beans, which are drier than grade A beans designed for gourmet cooking and baking. Either will work just fine, however.
Vanilla beans. They smell incredible!
Vanilla bean prices have gone up drastically over the past few years; you can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $40 for ten beans depending on the grade and variety. Even so, making extract is still cheaper than buying it at the grocery store - and there is no comparison in the quality.
As for how many beans do you need to buy... a good rule of thumb is one to two beans per ounce of alcohol. If you go below that, you don't end up with true vanilla extract, but with some sort of vanilla flavoring.
The only other ingredient that you need is the alcohol to extract the flavor. I personally use cheap vodka; some swear that good vodka is better, as they say that the more neutral flavor makes better extract... I need to try that some day, though I'm not sure my palate is sensitive enough to care. Some choose to use rum, but I want to taste the vanilla only. Some opt for Everclear or other extremely high ABV booze, but the fact is that you honestly don't get as much flavor extraction once you go too high in alcohol (vanillin, one of the main flavor elements of vanilla, is water soluble - not alcohol soluble). When all is said and done, the 40% ABV of vodka is pretty much the sweet spot that you are looking for.
Cheap vodka for your extract. I literally ask for the cheapest that they sell.
Some people get small mason jars or similar food safe containers for their extract. If you're planning to make a large batch, maybe to give some as gifts or whatever, this is a wise idea. I personally just use the 375 ml (~13 oz) vodka bottle, as I'm just using the extract myself at home.
Take your beans and slice them in half, lengthwise - this allows the alcohol easy access to the flavorful contents of the bean. Next, chop them into inch or so pieces. Some advise scraping out the caviar (aka the insides of the beans) and adding that directly to the alcohol to help speed up the extraction process. In my opinion, a few weeks of time are not worth potentially losing any of the valuable beans.
Beans sliced down the middle, then cut into pieces.
Drop your bean pieces into your jar, then cover them with the alcohol. Or, if you're like me, just drop the pieces down into the vodka bottle. Shake it up well.
Shake it up!
Store the solution out of the sunlight, in a reasonably warm, dark place (kitchen cabinets are great). Every time you think about it for the next few weeks, shake up the extract to help ensure that every bit of the bean is properly saturated and you get all of that wonderful flavor out.
By roughly eight weeks, your liquid will have turned a dark, rich brown in color, and you'll technically have usable extract. Be patient, don't give in - instead, leave it alone until it is six months old. If you can manage this, you'll be amazed at what you have - and will likely never want to touch store bought vanilla extract again.
If you like, at that point, use cheesecloth and strain the extract to a clean container - it makes for a nicer gift to not have little inedible chunks at the bottom of your container.
Or, you can do like me and leave the beans in the alcohol indefinitely. The flavor will continue to mature and intensify; if you feel like it's too strong, you can just use less in your recipes, or you can add tiny amounts of alcohol to dilute it. Then again, the incredible liquid gold that you have at that point will probably encourage you to just appreciate it for the treasure that it is.
Good luck, and happy cooking!
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