I've done some research on making our own vanilla and wanted to share the info here. (Mostly so I can reference it later because I'm forgetful like that.) First, did you know that the term "bourbon vanilla" is not about the liquor used? The author of A Spicy Perspective explained it: "Originally bottles labeled 'Bourbon Vanilla Extract' contained extract made from Madagascar vanilla beans, specifically from the island of Réunion, which was once called Ile Bourbon. Therefore, modern day Bourbon Vanilla can be made with any alcohol, as long as it it also made with Madagascar vanilla beans." What kind of alcohol can you use to make vanilla extract?
It actually doesn't matter, but it does need to be at least 40% alcohol (that's 80 proof). Some say it's best to use a colorless, flavorless alcohol for extracting. This is what mass producers use. Additionally, vanilla beans contain both water soluble and alcohol soluble molecules. So, you don't want to use something super high in alcohol content because you'll miss out on the water soluble aspects that give it full bodied flavor. If you want to read more about alcohol + vanilla combined profiles, and why I chose bourbon, I recommend this link. What kind of vanilla beans can you use to make vanilla extract?
Typically Grade B vanilla beans are used for extracts while Grade A beans are used for baking or infusing into creams and custards. The different varieties have unique flavor profiles that most palates won't be able to differentiate (especially when mixed into your recipes). As far as the type of beans, the general leaders of vanilla production are Madagascar, Uganda, Indonesia, and Tahiti.
Whoah! This is getting expensive. Isn't there a more budget friendly way?
Sometimes you can find extract grade splits or pieces. You may want to check eBay for those, but keep an eye on the seller reviews and ratings to make sure you know what you're getting! When using pieces, you're going to need to be careful because they're small and want to float to the surface. To keep them under the alcohol, you can use something like fermentation weights. The beans must all be 100% submerged or they will mold. Here are some suggestions on how to DIY this (Because we're talking about budget friendly vanilla now). You can also buy them on Amazon for about $12.
By law, what are the properties of a vanilla extract?
The FDA requires vanilla extract to be no less than 35% alcohol by volume. Because vanilla beans contain some water that will dilute the final product a tad. This is why we use a minimum of 40% (80 proof) alcohol. After dilution from the water in the beans, it should be in the safe "over 35% alcohol" zone. It's also important that we use enough vanilla beans to alcohol (otherwise we're just making vanilla vodka). In order to be an extract, there needs to be 13.35 oz of vanilla beans per gallon of extract. Vanilla beans vary widely in size and weight. But, a good rule of thumb is to use 6 whole beans in every 8 ounces of single strength vanilla extract.
Okay, but what about double-strength vanilla?
I'm not looking to take out a second mortgage to make vanilla, but if you're going full throttle, here's what you need to know. By definition, double strength vanilla is made with 23 ounces of beans per gallon of alcohol (or 1.5 ounces per cup), so roughly 12 average sized beans in 8 ounces of liquor. A word of caution, Cook's Illustrated tested both vanillas and found that people preferred the flavor of single strength.
Can't I make it go faster in an Instant Pot?
I have read blogs about using a pressure cooker to expedite the process. THIS IS NOT SAFE. Don't do it. It's not worth your safety if something goes awry. Per the manufacturer: "Regarding cooking alcohol in Instant Pot, there are many factors which could generate source of ignition of the alcohol fume. These are not part of the Instant Pot product and beyond the control of Instant Pot device. We cannot officially endorse such use given the possibility of unforeseen risks."
Robert Wang, CEO, Instant Pot
Okay, enough chit chat, how do I actually make vanilla extract?
First, let's gather our supplies. You will need:
• Whole or split vanilla beans
• Glass jars
For every 6 beans, we're going to need 8oz of alcohol.
This 750ml bottle of Maker's Mark made 3 batches of vanilla extract.
You can absolutely put all of the beans and alcohol in the same jar. Just make sure the beans are completely submerged or you could get mold. I made three small jars so that I can rotate them. This way I always have a jar that is extracting in the back of the cabinet. Once the jar is empty, except for the beans, I'll fill the jar back up and start the process over. Rumor has it, the beans are good for a few extractions. Also, some bloggers suggest cutting the beans lengthwise to make the extraction process faster. I have a few reasons for leaving my beans intact. First, I don't always want vanilla bean specks in my recipe. But, mostly, I want to get as much out of these as possible. So, I will use the beans for extract, then split lengthwise and remove the seeds for another recipe. (Some people call the seeds inside a bean the "caviar.") I imagine this will effect the potency, so it might be helpful to combine the spent beans into one jar and keep that for personal use (vs. gift giving).
After filling the jars, I had a few beans left. I just put an extra one in each of the jars (or you can use them for something else). I labeled them with the type of beans and the date we started the extract, in case I want to try some variations down the road. You're going to need to keep these away from the light (mine are in the back of my baking cabinet). Give them a shake at least once a week. The processing time is reported to be anywhere from 4 months to a year. I'll update in the spring with new pictures or you can follow me on instagram at IntolerantVegan.