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How to Make the Best Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Cordials

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Homemade vanilla extract is easy and fun to make. It isn’t as strong as commercial vanilla extracts though it may have a larger flavor bouquet than extracts from the market. But the real pleasure is in making it for yourself or for giving as gifts. Before we get started, here’s some information about how commercial extracts are made. I’m including this information here as people have some misconceptions based on commercial versus homemade extracts.

How commercial vanilla extract is made

Commercial extracts are made from extract grade vanilla beans. These beans are drier than gourmet grade beans as they will be ground to a fine powder. Gourmet grade beans are too moist and will gum up the machinery. The best commercial extracts are made with beans that have a high natural vanillin content. Vanillin is the most recognizable aroma of vanilla and makes up about 25% of the fragrance. 250 specific chemical compounds have been identified in pure vanilla, but there are actually at least 500 compounds in pure vanilla, which is why no imitation vanilla can match its flavor and fragrance.

The ground vanilla beans, known as vanilla extractives, are put into stainless steel drums that use a percolation system. A mixture of food grade sugar cane or grain alcohol and purified water circulates through the beans until the flavor has been pulled from the ground beans. Some companies use a cold process, others a warm process. Is one better than another? I honestly don’t know, but most companies prefer the cold process.

Ideally the mixture would rest for several days before being strained, but meeting the demand for extract usually doesn’t allow for this. I bring this up here as homemade extracts can age as long as you’d like.

The mixture is then filtered through very fine mesh screens to remove the majority of the extractives, then sugar, corn syrup, caramel color or other additives may be added to the extract. These sweeteners help to cover the harsh nose of the alcohol but are not necessary for making better extract. Finally, the extract is either stored in large containers or bottled into gallons and prepared for market. The longer this extract rests, the smoother the product as the flavors mellow and age.

Just like commercial extracts, homemade extracts benefit from the aging process. If you are making extracts as holiday gifts, you should ideally begin in August. As that often isn’t practical, there are still a few tricks you can use that I’ll share in a moment. First, choosing beans.

What kind of vanilla beans should you use?

Vanilla planifolia, is the primary species of vanilla used commercially. You probably know it as Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla. These are the beans I recommend you use as it will produce a familiar flavor for you.  Unlike commercial extracts, you need gourmet-grade beans. While yes, you can use extract grade beans and grind them or you can purchase ground vanilla bean powder, you are going to get the richest, most flavorful vanilla using gourmet grade beans.

What kind of alcohol should you use?

It doesn’t matter which alcohol you choose for making extract – it’s more a question of which alcohol you prefer.

Vodka has the least flavor to interfere with the taste of the vanilla. Because rum is sweet, it’s the best for making cordials, and vanilla brandy is lovely to pour over freshly baked holiday cakes or added to stewed winter fruits.

You can also add additional spices to the alcohol to make a vanilla and spice rum, vodka or brandy. In Reunion, Madagascar, and the Caribbean countries, most families have their own spiced blends that they serve for sipping. Sometimes medicinal herbs are added to the alcohol and used for coughs or stomach ailments. In Mexico they often blend Everclear with vanilla beans and piloncillo, the molasses-rich raw sugar.

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How to make homemade pure vanilla extract

For each pint of alcohol, you need five to ten vanilla beans. You can use more if you choose, but ten per pint is enough to get the extract flavored quickly. Split the beans lengthwise to expose the seeds, keeping the ends of the beans intact. Place Rum-and-Beans-IMG_1325-e1361843055529beans in a pint of high-quality vodka, rum or brandy. If you’re using more alcohol, add beans proportionately. Because you are working with alcohol, make certain you make the extract away from an open fire, heater or the pilot light on the stove. There is no need to dilute the alcohol with purified water when making homemade extracts.

Store the extract in a cool, dark place such as a cupboard or closet for a minimum of four weeks. Shake the bottle several times a week. Sometimes the mixture may get cloudy or murky looking. Don’t panic. The beans contain some pulp, which sometimes leaches into the alcohol. You’re using alcohol so it’s highly unlikely that bacteria is growing in the bottle. When you decant the extract into gift bottles or you are preparing to use it, strain the extract through a sieve lined with several layers of cheese cloth. This will guarantee a lovely amber extract, just the way it’s supposed to look.

To use, either remove four of the beans for another purpose (you can add them with a fresh bean to make more extract, or you can use the beans for cooking), or let all the beans remain in the bottle, and periodically, add more alcohol to keep the bottle replenished. Eventually the beans will lose their strength but they should maintain their flavor for many months. If you are making the extract for the holidays, keep the beans in the alcohol as long as possible.

Homemade vanilla extract is a welcomed and appreciated gift

For gift making, make several liters of extract. Decant the extract into unusual bottles, adding a vanilla bean to each bottle, add a label and voilà, you have a very attractive gift. The extra bean in the bottle will also guarantee that the extract will be as rich as possible, even if you got a late start.

I sometimes tie a couple of extra beans to the bottle with raffia and include directions for making more extract.

You can also turn your homemade extract into a vanilla cordial for a truly unique and elegant gift.

How to make vanilla cordial

Follow the above directions for making extract. When the extract is at least four weeks old, remove the beans from the bottle and place in a medium saucepan. Add 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue to boil about 3 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Allow the mixture to cool.

Pour the syrup through the sieve lined with fresh cheesecloth into a clean bottle containing the extract. Add a vanilla bean to the bottle if desired. Allow the cordial to mellow at least one week before serving. The longer the cordial ages, the smoother it will be. If you want a cordial that isn’t quite this strong, double the amount of simple syrup.

The Vanilla Company carries the finest vanilla beans for making extract. Your purchase here supports the work we do for the farmers.  Read more…

Patricia Rain
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Patricia Rain

is an author, educator, culinary historian, and owner of The Vanilla Company (www.vanillaqueen.com), a socially conscious, product-driven information and education site dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla, and the support of vanilla farmers worldwide. She also does culinary presentations for food professionals, cooking schools, trade shows, food fairs, and private groups, and is a regular radio and TV guest.

Comments (12)

  • Sabrina

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    Many Pure Vanilla Extracts list Vanilla bean extractives as ingredients. What exactly are Vanilla bean extractives? How are they different from whole Vanilla beans? I’m trying to ensure that there is nothing in the extractives other than vanilla beans. Can the extractives contain any articicial or “natural” flavors?

    Thank you,
    Sabrina

    Reply

    • Patricia Rain

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      Sabrina, Vanilla bean extractives simply means ground up vanilla beans. They grind the beans before making the extract. That said, although companies are technically supposed to list all the ingredients, not all do. They don’t always list what type of alcohol has been used in the extract, what sweeteners have been used (or not) such as corn syrup, and if they have additional ingredients such as caramel coloring. The deal on caramel coloring is that it adds more sweetening to the product.

      Our vanilla extracts now contain no sugar. We had a very small amount of sugar in our extracts and so our labels may indicate that, but the extracts actually have no sweetener at all — just vanilla beans, sugar cane alcohol and water.

      Reply

  • Penny R

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    Hi Patricia, I have a quick question. I understand the FDA regulations for commercial vanilla extract is 35% alcohol & 65% distilled water, and your homemade recipe is using 100% alcohol. My question is…. does using 100% alcohol make the best extract ? or is there an optimal balance between alcohol & water ?
    Just wondering if commercial producers would do it differently if they had the choice.
    Many thanks
    Penny

    Reply

    • Patricia Rain

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      Penny, commercial extract is made very differently from homemade. Homemade is a technique called maceration, where the beans just rest in the alcohol. Commercial extract is made using a percolation process. Extract grade beans are drier than regular beans. They’re used as the grade A beans are too moist and would gum up the machinery. Grade A beans are better for homemade extracts. The alcohol and distilled water flush through the ground vanilla beans. Typically the mixture remains in the tank for hours or overnight. The water is necessary to this process. It’s a faster, more effective way to make extract as it doesn’t require as much time. this is why you don’t need water in homemade extraction but do in commercial extraction. Some companies use hot water for extraction; the majority prefer cold water extraction.

      Reply

  • Jeremy

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    Hi Patricia,
    I have a question about usage of the vanilla beans after the extract is made. Is it possible to dry the beans and then grind them for use in a vanilla paste? Or should the ground beans used in vanilla paste have no prior usage?

    Reply

    • Patricia Rain

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      Jeremy, you can use the vanilla beans over again once you’ve made extract to make more extract or to remain in the bottle if you made it for yourself, so that it gets even stronger and richer-flavored. And yes, you can dry them and grind them. That said, I don’t recommend making homemade vanilla paste. Unless it is done in very clean, sterile conditions, it is great for harboring bacteria. I don’t personally recommend making homemade paste. However, you can use the ground beans to make vanilla powder and use it in cooking and baking. Regards, Patricia

      Reply

  • Donna Maxwell

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    Would there be a benefit to adding vanilla powder to the bean and alcohol recipe to enhance the flavor and richness of the finished product? I am ordering beans to make my own extract but because of the expense, I would like to stretch the potency and bouquet of the product as much as possible.

    Reply

    • Patricia Rain

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      Donna, if you are using a reasonable number of vanilla beans, you don’t need to add ground vanilla bean powder to the extract. In fact, if you keep the beans in the bottle, as you use the extract, just add more rum, brandy, vodka or whatever alcohol you’re using and the beans will continue to provide flavor and fragrance for a long time.

      Reply

  • Topaz Spivey

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    Hi Patricia,
    My question is in reference to baking. With this extract using 100% alcohol, do you use the same amount that a recipe calls for or do you modify it?

    Reply

    • Patricia Rain

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      Yes, you will use the same amount. If you look at the bottle you’ve purchased for making extract, you will see that it is 40% alcohol, not 100% alcohol. This means it is 80 proof. Vanilla extract is 70 proof, so there isn’t a whole lot of difference in alcohol between the two. You can also put in a little less extract and taste the batter to decide if you want to add more extract. Either way, a lot of the alcohol will bake out.

      Reply

  • Michael K

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    I read about how to make home made pure vanilla extract using alcohol. My question is is there any other liquid that I can use to make pure vanilla extract or is that the only way that it can be done to get the proper flavor.
    Your response will be very appreciated.

    Reply

    • Patricia Rain

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      Hi Michael,
      When making extracts, whether it is using maceration (homemade vanilla) or percolation (commercial vanilla), you need to have a solvent of some type to extract the flavor from the vanilla beans. Most extracts are made with alcohol as the solvent. This includes other baking extracts such as almond, lemon, orange, etc. There is another product that is used to extract flavor from vanilla beans. Called “Vanilla Flavor” as a way to separate it from vanilla extract, the solvent that is used is Propylene Glycol. Personally, I don’t recommend using it. First, the finished product doesn’t carry a lot of taste and/or fragrance. Propylene Glycol also has a fairly high tendency to cause an allergic reaction. I’m allergic to it. The bottom line is that using alcohol is necessary to get the flavor and fragrance. Commercial vanillas are required by law to be 35% alcohol (70 proof) as the Standard of Identity. When making your own at home, you’re using a good aged alcohol — Brandy, Rum or Vodka. In addition to extracting flavor and fragrance, the alcohol helps to keep the beans from decomposing.

      Reply

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