Vanilla comes from the vanilla bean, which grows on an orchid. With a taste as exotic as its origins would imply, vanilla is a highly valued flavoring for a variety of dishes (most often, desserts). Vanilla extract is the flavor and aromatic essence of vanilla, infused into an alcohol base for more versatility and storage.
The basics of making vanilla extract are easy: stick vanilla beans in a jar with liquor, seal, shake and wait.
What Type of Liquor to Use
You can use any liquor you want for making vanilla extract, but go for one with at least an 80 proof (or 40% alcohol). Vodka is commonly used because of its neutral or "flavorless" taste, allowing the flavor of the vanilla to really come through. Rum is also popular, and particularly awesome in baked goods and other desserts.
How to Prepare Vanilla Extract
To make your own extract, use about a cup of liquor for every 1-3 vanilla beans, depending on their size. Cut open the beans lengthwise with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors in order to expose the seeds before placing them in the jar and pouring the liquor over them.
Use a clean, glass jar with a lid that seals tightly and completely. Before you put anything inside the jar, sterilize it by placing it open side down in a stock pot of boiling water. Place the lid in the pot as well. Let the two sit there in the boiling water for 10 minutes.
Place the opened vanilla beans and liquor into the jar and seal it. Shake it a few times and then place it in a dark, cool cabinet. Leave it there for around 2 months, shaking it one or two times each week.
Over time you will notice the liquid getting darker, though this is lessened if you’re using a darker liquor like rum.
Vanilla extract adds a distinctive taste to any dish, and goes especially well in sweets. The alcohol burns off when the extract is sufficiently heated, leaving only the flavorful and aromatic essence behind.
Homemade vanilla extract also makes a great gift for the holidays, as it’s widely used in many holiday dishes like sweet potato pie, bread pudding and fruitcake. Present it in attractive decorative glass containers and they will become as much a visual delight as a tasty one.
Keep It Going
You can keep your jar of vanilla extract going indefinitely by refreshing it with additional beans and refilling it with more liquor.
Since it’s primarily alcohol, vanilla extract can last decades.
There’s no flavoring in the world quite like vanilla, for both uniqueness and versatility in culinary uses. And there’s no easier way to make use of this exotic yet affordable flavoring than as an extract!