Vanilla Extract (recipe)
With so many recipes out there from all the various blogs, there is a lot of misinformation out there. Now none of these are entirely wrong, but a lot of times the "familiarity" of what people have come to know and love, misses the mark on the final product. We'll explain the necessary requirements to get that familiar taste with the DIY recipe.
Let's start with how vanilla has been enjoyed over the years by looking at FDA regulations and how store bought vanilla extract is made (since that is probably what you are most familiar with). The FDA requirements to call a vanilla extract "pure" at a single-fold concentration is:
• 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans for every gallon of extract
• 35% (70 proof) ethyl alcohol solution used for extraction
Pretty simple, huh? Oh, if anything in life were ever quite that simple. There are 3 different categories of vanilla extract and FDA labelling requirements.
• Vanilla Category 1 (Pure Vanilla Extract): Must contain at least 13.3 oz. vanilla beans per gallon of extract (for single fold extract) and at least 35% alcohol. All flavoring components come directly from the vanilla bean. May not be spiked with any artificial flavors.
Labelled as Pure Vanilla Extract
• Vanilla Category 2 (Natural Vanilla Extract or Flavor): At least 51% of vanilla flavoring must come from the vanilla bean. No more than 49% of the flavoring can be added artificially. Alcohol percentage may be lower.
Labelled as Natural Vanilla Extract or Natural Vanilla Flavor
• Vanilla Category 3 (Artificial Vanilla Extract or Flavor): No restrictions on artificial ingredients or alcohol percentage.
Store bought pure vanilla extract is made using any manner of vanilla beans. Large manufacturers like McCormick's use a blend of Madagascar, Uganda, Tanzania, and Indonesian vanilla beans year round. Vanilla is expensive, and Madagascan vanilla prices are very well known for being volatile depending on weather patterns for the seasons. In order to keep costs reasonable and to meet demand, they source from other locations outside of traditional Madagascar.
The manufacturing process is still quite simple however. Beans are macerated (ground into small pieces or mashed into a pulp) and are percolated in large vats for approximately 2-3 days. The vanilla is typically left to "age" for roughly 3 months to bring out additional flavors and aromatics, much like a fine wine.
You're probably wondering why any of this is important. Well you're in luck, because we're going to explain that too! Let's jump back to the "familiar" and to the many DIY blog posts. Most people over time have purchased their extract from the grocery store and one of the many manufacturers of vanilla extract. You've come to have a certain expectation of what that should be.
Many blogs and DIY posts say "add 5 vanilla beans to 16 fl. oz. of vodka and let soak for 8 weeks" or another saying, "NO! Add 1 bean to every 8 fl. oz. to rum and let soak for 1 year!", and so on. So which of them is correct? The answer is both of them, and neither of them. The reality is that, depending on your tastes, you may prefer vanilla extract in a solution of vodka, rum, brandy, bourbon, etc. You may also prefer it at a different strength. Some want a mild taste of vanilla while others would drink it with a shot glass if they felt like it. Vanilla, much like garlic, can be tolerated in large amounts and isn't often offensive if the ratios are off.
Now, the reasons why they are wrong are simple. In order to achieve the "standard", vanilla extract and the correct number of beans for a single-fold extract is 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans for every gallon of extract. That translates into 0.83 oz. of vanilla beans for every 1 fl. oz. of extract OR 2.35 grams of vanilla beans. How much does 1 vanilla bean weigh then? There is no definite answer, but a good ratio from a supplier that is trusted, should be ~3 grams. A good rule there would be 9-10 whole vanilla beans for every 8 fl. oz. of vanilla extract. Expect that 10 vanilla beans should equal 1 oz. of vanilla.
So, for a relatively straight forward recipe for those that do not have/wish to use a scale is as follows:
Note: to make a double, or triple-fold extract, increase the amount of vanilla beans by double or triple.
• 8 fl. oz. of 35% (70 proof) ethyl alcohol solution. Your choice of vodka, bourbon, rum, or brandy.
• 10 vanilla beans split or cut into 1 inch pieces
• Large enough bottle or vessel to fit all alcohol, vanilla beans, and to ensure there is room to shake the extract AND keep the vanilla beans completely submerged at all times.
• Patience! This is a long process, but it well worth the wait and effort.
1. Slice down the middle of the vanilla bean from end-to-end using a SHARP and SMALL (paring) knife. You may also cut vanilla beans into 1 inch pieces instead of slicing. I cannot emphasize SHARP and SMALL enough. A dull knife may not easily cut through and a long knife may be hard to control with such a small bean and may cause serious injury.
2. Place the vanilla beans in a bottle or vessel. Pour the alcohol into the bottle or vessel over the vanilla beans. Tightly seal the jar with a cap or lid and shake for a few seconds.
3. Store the vanilla extract in an area that is cool and out direct sunlight. Using an amber colored bottle is recommended. Shake vigorously at the VERY least once a week. You may shake as often as you like and daily is not a bad idea either to keep the extraction process going.
4. It is okay to open the lid if you're curious to smell the progress of your extract. Limit how often you open the bottle since alcohol will continue to evaporate with each time you open. I know there are some people out there that would open it every 5 minutes...
5. Your extract will smell like alcohol for the first couple months during the extraction period. It takes at least 3 months to start smelling more like vanilla than alcohol. It is strongly suggested you wait 6 months and if you've got the patience, one whole year before your extract is ready to use.