You’d be hard-pressed to find a holiday cookie recipe that doesn’t call for a hefty dose of vanilla extract. Our Best Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies do. So do our Bourbon Bacon and Brown Sugar Cookies. Even our Chewy Lemon Snowdrops need some vanilla! A good quality vanilla extract is the flavor base to so many gorgeous baked goods.
There is just one problem: good quality vanilla extract is expensive. And if you skimp on the quality to save money, the flavor just isn’t as strong or rich. So what’s a cookie-loving baker to do? Make your own! It saves so much money, and the quality is just so much better than what you can buy from the store.
How do you make vanilla extract?
The hands-on time for making vanilla extract is incredibly low, but the whole process does take some patience. To make homemade vanilla extract:
- Split or cut open vanilla beans lengthwise.
- Soak in alcohol (we recommend grain alcohol, like Everclear) for at least eight weeks, but preferably 6-12 months, using a ratio of six vanilla beans per eight ounces of alcohol. Shake every day (or as often as you remember).
- Use! You can top off the alcohol as you use the extract from the bottle to keep a constant supply of vanilla on hand.
What’s the best alcohol to make vanilla extract?
Just like with our Homemade Limoncello, we recommend sticking with high-proof grain alcohol like Everclear 189/190. It’s going to give you the best extraction in the shortest amount of time. If Everclear 189/190 isn’t available in your area, Everclear 151 or 120 will do the trick. If you cannot purchase Everclear at all, the highest proof vodka you can find will work. You’ll need to infuse much longer (closer to the 12 months mark) and use more vanilla beans per bottle of extract.
Can you make vanilla extract without alcohol?
You can, by making what is called a glycerite—an infusion of equal parts vegetable glycerin and water. This results in a sweet vanilla extract that is mild in flavor. Since glycerin isn’t nearly as effective of an extraction liquid as grain alcohol, I recommend doubling the number of vanilla beans in each bottle and extracting for a longer time (closer to 12 months).
Can you reuse the beans to make more vanilla extract?
Yes! In fact, we recommend doing continuous brewing with your homemade vanilla extract. Leave the beans in the bottle, and then every time you use some, top the bottle off with a little more alcohol. Eventually, you’ll need to swap in new vanilla beans when the flavor starts to get weak, but depending on your vanilla usage, you can get by with months or even years on the same bottle of extract.
So…why is vanilla extract so expensive?
Well, it mostly comes down to the one thing we all struggle with: time. Growing vanilla beans is not a speedy process. The vines themselves can take up to four years to fully mature before they’ll flower, and the entire cultivation process after that is incredibly labor-intensive. They only bloom one single day a year and require hand pollination on that single day. And then, it can take 8-9 months for the vanilla pod to fully ripen to be harvested. But wait, there is more! Even after the vanilla beans have been harvested, they require months to cure before they can be used or sold.
What’s the best place to buy vanilla beans?
Unfortunately, because growing vanilla beans is such a laborious process and vanilla is most often grown in areas of the world with lax labor regulations, the vanilla industry is overrun with child labor and unfair wage issues. Lower-cost vanilla beans are readily available both online and in-store if your budget is tight and you’re looking to make affordable vanilla extract.
If purchasing fair-trade vanilla beans is important to you and can fit within your budget, you can find them on Amazon or through independent sellers like La Faza. The price of vanilla beans fluctuates largely throughout the year, so make sure to use an app like Honey to track when you can get the best price if purchasing online. I’ve also found fair-trade vanilla beans in the bulk spice section at my local natural food store. Either way, by making your own vanilla extract at home, you’re saving money over the premade extracts using the same kinds of beans.
Madagascar, Mexican, Tahitian, oh my! What kind of vanilla beans should you use to make extract?
You can use any kind of vanilla beans to make extract—the process will be the same. Just like different varieties of tomatoes though, different varieties of vanilla beans have slightly different flavors. Here is a general overview of the flavor notes of each of the main types. You can mix, match, and combine to make your own bespoke vanilla extract!
- Madagascar (Bourbon): rich, smooth, sweet, creamy
- Mexican: dark, bold, and with spice (like cloves) undertones
- Tahitian: floral, fruity
How do you package homemade vanilla extract for a gift?
Homemade vanilla extract is so beautiful on its own, you don’t want to hide it behind any wrapping! I make and give my vanilla in 8-ounce clear swing-top bottles. Vanilla extract does last longer when protected from light, so if you plan on storing it out of the pantry, look for amber bottles.