In this month’s Make or Buy series we’re thinking ahead to the holidays. Yes… I’m aware that’s 6 months away, but with this ingredient you need to think into the future. Far, far into the future. Because today we’re making vanilla extract.
But is that a cocktail ingredient you might ask? The very simple is yes, it can be. But it’s also an ingredient you get to make with booze, and one which takes SIX months minimum to infuse, so we’re talking about it today. And why mention the holidays Elana? Well, for one, it’s an ingredient you probably use a lot of to bake holiday things with like cookies. And two, it’s a great gift to give someone, especially at a time when we’re all gifting something to someone. So, Christmas in July it is!
Before we get into the pros and cons of the homemade versus the store bought, I just wanted to let you know a little about vanilla beans. For one, if you decide to go the homemade route, you may run into some sticker shock when you see bean prices. Vanilla beans, you see, are a huge pain in the butt to grow. They require very high humidity environments, the flowers need to be hand pollinated (where you get a little flower dust from one plant and paint it onto another plant), and the flower blooms in like, one day and you only have that one day to pollinate the plant. Once the pods are picked, they need to cure in the sun for upwards of a year. It’s labor intensive work done by humans, humans who should be paid a living wage for their work, and that comes with a price tag. You will find vanilla beans from places like Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico as well as a score of other places. There are two main types of vanilla: Tahitian and Planifolia. However, that in combination with where they are grown produces their unique flavors and aromas. I’d suggest doing some research first and decide what flavor profile you’d prefer before going the homemade route. One last note: grade type. There are Grade A and Grade B vanilla beans. Grade B is for extract, so buy those.
Another note here is that I am using bourbon instead of vodka for the base. You mostly definitely can use a neutral spirit for making an extract like this, in fact, most would be done that way. However, I wanted to use the flavors found in bourbon to complement vanilla this time for a more robust flavor profile.
I have two store bought vanillas that I interchangeably use and I thought I’d present both here because they represent two ends of the store bought spectrum, the not too pricey grocery store variety, and the fancier, way more expensive variety. Depending on your budget and need, these are both great buys for a ready made vanilla. I happen to live near the grocery store Sprouts so I’ve been using their organic vanilla extract and that is fine. However, I also occasionally splurge and purchase Nielsen-Massey vanilla as well. There was a time that because of my job, I could purchase this practically at cost and I got very used to their awesome vanillas and other products, but they are definitely on the higher end as far as vanillas go. The Nielsen-Massey vanillas have more varieties to choose from, and therefor one can get more of the type of vanilla they are looking for. For example, their Tahitian is more flowery, while their Madagascar Bourbon is more robust. These flavors do come across in the final products you use them in, but if you’re just looking to add a touch of vanilla to some cookies you’re fine with both. However, if you’re looking for vanilla aromas to use in a cocktail where it needs to work with the other ingredients, you may want to go for the higher end product.
So let’s look at the pros and cons of both the store bought and the homemade, shall we?
To buy: Sprouts Organic Vanilla Extract ($) // Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon ($$$)
- Readily available in store or online
- Great vanilla taste
- Consistent flavors
- Can be pricey
- Not refillable
- Limited to availability
To make: Bourbon Vanilla Extract
- Strong vanilla aroma
- Refillable (can be topped off with more alcohol to extend product)
- Sourcing quality beans can be difficult
- Extract takes a minimum 6 month to one year to make
- Flavors may not be consistent depending on vanilla bean batches
Homemade Bourbon Vanilla Extract
15 vanilla beans, 4″ in length (about 1 ounce of vanilla beans)
8 ounces of bourbon, Wild Turkey 101 used here
Chop your vanilla beans in pieces about 1″ long and place in an air-tight, non reactive container (like a Ball jar). Pour bourbon over beans, seal, and gently shake. Let sit in a dark, cool place for the next 6 months. Shake the jar at least once a week or more as this helps speed up the infusion by moving everything around. At the 6 month mark, take a taste. This will be ready to use at this point but if you’d like to get a stronger vanilla taste, you can continue to let this sit, agitating occasionally for up to one year. You can also add some additional bourbon to top off as needed when it starts to uncover the vanilla beans. When desired taste has been reached, fine strain out the vanilla beans and bottle. Discard beans. Keep in a dry, cool place.