My father has always been a little OCD about baking. In a good way. We both subscribe to the philosophy that if you can’t count on something being made just the way you like it, you should probably just make it yourself. Dissatisfied with the available store-bought granolas, he experimented with myriad possible combinations of nuts and seeds until he could recreate the house brand of his co-ed ‘fraternity’ in college, complete with peanuts (?) and sesame seeds. On another occasion, he became obsessed with chasing down the perfect pie crust. He bought every book on pies ever published, tried various ratios of lard to shortening to butter, and stored his food processor in the freezer until the last second it was needed. (His secret ingredient: apple cider vinegar). But it was his obsession with vanilla varieties that I became most excited about.
Despite its cultural connotations as a marker of the hoh-hum and plain, vanilla has become the flavoring of choice for seemingly every baked recipe out there, from chocolate chip cookies to banana bread. If you are a baker, I hope you have discovered the important truth that not all vanillas are created equal. And given that vanilla extract is often used as a key flavoring, it’s important to choose one that packs a punch.
Vanilla originated in Mesoamerica, and in fact much of the vanilla still produced comes from Mexico and surrounding regions. Vanilla bean pods come from the orchid Vanilla planifolia which existed in a symbiotic relationship with its natural pollinator, a local Mexican bee. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that a method of hand-pollination was discovered, allowing vanilla to grow in other locales. The fact that someone has to stand in a field and hand pollinate each plant within 12 hours of the flower opening in order to harvest and dry the seed pods into vanilla beans should give you some clue as to why this stuff is so darn expensive.
Today three modern derivations of the original vanilla grow worldwide, with the most popular coming from Madagascar and Reunion Island (originally called Ile Bourbon, giving this vanilla variety the marker “Bourbon Vanilla”). Other popular producers are Tahiti (Tahitian Vanilla), and Mexico (Mexican Vanilla), but it’s Indonesia that produces nearly half of the world’s vanilla. The cheap stuff. But not as cheap as vanillin, the synthetic imitation vanilla flavor that makes up 95% of vanilla-flavored products.
Upon discovering the range of vanilla varieties out there, my dad started importing beans and extracts in bulk. He compared the floral Tahitian liquid to the drier, subtle version of the original Mexican. He ordered beans, paste, vanilla sugar, and bottles and bottle of extract to investigate flavor, color. Having amassed enough vanilla extract to bake a lifetime supply of brownies, he started pawning off some of his duplicates on me.
When my last bottle of Mexican vanilla started to run low, I decided to try my hand at creating my own variety. Like any extract or infusion, the main ingredient in making your own vanilla is time. My first bottle has been sitting on the shelf for a little over a month, and the sweet vanilla aroma is just starting to win out over the sharp vodka (in other words: it’s beginning to smell more like ice cream and less like high school). In another month or so, I'll let you know how it tastes!
Homemade Vanilla Extract
There’s no way to get around the fact that vanilla, in all its forms, is expensive. Making your own vanilla extract may ultimately not save you money over a jar of middle of the road store bought stuff, but it gives you a lot more control over the flavor and is a fun project to have sitting on your shelf. The combination of vodka and brandy will add a depth of flavor to the final extract.
6 oz vodka (no need for top shelf, but don’t buy the stuff in a plastic bottle either)
2 oz brandy
5 whole vanilla beans
Note: Choose your vanilla beans carefully, as this is where the flavor comes from. I think Madagascar tends to produce superior beans, but there is plenty of variation even within each place of origin. The better the beans, the better the extract. I used single-origin Madagascar Bourbon variety imported by Rodelle, but you could create a unique blend of your choosing.
Slice each bean lengthwise to expose seeds on the interior of the pod.
Place halved beans into an eight-ounce mason jar. You are welcome to cut the beans into smaller lengths to help them fit in the jar better; it won’t affect the flavor but might not look as pretty.
Pour vodka and brandy over beans to cover. Seal jar and shake to mix.
Store in a cool, dark place for a minimum of 2 months before testing. The mixture should darken to a rich amber when it’s ready. Many store-bought vanillas have added sweetener so don’t be surprised if yours tastes a bit stronger than you’re used to. Once it’s mixed into baked goods, the flavor will come through and you won’t miss the sweetener.