Vanilla extract is an essential in my pantry. When I decided to live plastic free, I stopped buying vanilla essence in plastic and started buying vanilla extract in glass bottles. I found a fair trade brand which even had a metal lid, but it still had a pesky piece of plastic around the neck of the bottle. I decided to see if I could make my own with less waste. Thankfully vanilla extract is incredibly easy to make from just two ingredients, vanilla beans and alcohol.
Finding vanilla beans in bulk (that is, without packaging) took ages but they were under my nose the whole time, I just hadn’t noticed. Make sure you ask in stores and at markets to be sure you haven’t missed them too. They might even sell you some from a bulk order before they get packaged.
If you can, choose organic, local and fair trade, and choose Grade B vanilla beans (also called extract beans) because their lower water content is better for the extraction process. Don’t worry if you can only get Grade A beans, you will still end up with delicious vanilla extract.
Vanilla extract is made using 35% – 40% (70-80 proof) alcohol. You can use gin, vodka, or white rum depending on the flavour you like. I chose 80 proof vodka so that the flavour doesn’t compete as much with the vanilla, and I have some other uses in mind for the vodka. The vodka I found had a plastic tamper-proof seal around the lid, but it wasn’t much bigger than for the little bottle of extract, so I am reducing my waste by making large volumes myself. The larger glass bottle also has more reusability than the little ones. Again, you might want to see if you can find an organic or local alcohol.
Place 3 vanilla beans split length ways into a jar with 250ml of alcohol. Use this ratio to make bigger amounts, for example six vanilla beans in 500ml of alcohol.
Some people suggest sterilising the jar first but bacteria cannot grow in 40% alcohol so I didn’t bother with this step. And because of the alcohol it will last for years.
Give it a quick shake, then store in a dark place like the pantry for about 2 months. Keeping it out of the light helps keep the nutritional value. Using a dark coloured jar helps with this but I wanted to be able to see the colour change over time so I used a clear glass jar. Try to remember to shake the vanilla extract one or two times a week. You can leave it longer to keep developing the flavour or use it after one month. It’s really up to you.
Apparently the vanilla pods will last for two years so I am going to decant the finished vanilla extract into the little bottles I saved from the store-bought vanilla extract, and add another cup of alcohol to the vanilla beans to keep up the supply.
I love the fact that homemade vanilla extract saves money and has no extra ingredients or flavours. How great would a bottle of homemade vanilla extract be as a gift?