In recent years, vanilla extract has become expensive. Lately, it’s also been increasingly difficult to find at the grocery store. You can use a replacement for vanilla extract in your baking, but it won’t taste quite the same.
But if you want the real deal, another option is to make your own vanilla extract, which is easy — and relatively inexpensive — to do with a few simple ingredients.
“The things I love about it is that it is superior to most of what you can find at the grocery store, far cheaper and you can upcycle a few things in the process,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College.
By making your own vanilla extract, you can control the strength of its flavor. Some store-bought options lack the essential depth of flavor that makes vanilla so scrumptious, either because the vanilla extract is imitation and made with artificial ingredients or brands cut back on the amount of real vanilla in each bottle.
“Your average grocery store is probably just selling synthetic [imitation] vanilla extract or pure vanilla extract,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “Synthetic vanilla extract represents like 90 percent of vanilla bought and sold.”
Quality vanilla extract — homemade or otherwise — will immediately elevate your cooking and baking.
“There’s quite a bit of nuance in vanilla that I think people look at as kind of a supporting role in terms of flavor in a lot of things rather than a starring role, but vanilla can be the star,” Dumas said.
Gather your materials
To make your own vanilla extract, you only need two ingredients: vanilla beans and alcohol.
“Vanilla extract is pretty simple,” Dumas said. “You’re basically just steeping the pods in alcohol. The reason you have to use alcohol is that it acts as a solvent, helps pull out the flavor of the vanilla, it breaks down some of those volatile compounds and helps them express themselves better.”
You can find vanilla beans at some grocery or natural food stores in the spice aisle, though Dumas said that sometimes it can be challenging to find them in stores. If you can’t locate them, try purchasing them online.
“I think it is important to source good quality vanilla beans,” Dumas said. “They should be plump and supple, not dry and powdery.”
Vanilla beans labeled “Grade B” are specifically sold for extracting purposes, but Grade A will also taste good. Dumas said the Madagascar vanilla pods are generally most renowned for their flavor, but vanilla sourced from other places will work just as well.
When making vanilla extract, you will be able to include a few pods without beans if you have used the beans for other purposes.
“Let’s say you made a dessert and scraped out the beans, but you still have the pod,” Enjaian said. “Unless you spent a lot of time scraping the bean, there will still be plenty of flavor left to make extract! You can also use Grade B beans, which are cheaper than Grade A. Grade B vanilla beans are simply less pretty.”
Note, though, that Dumas said that the flavor will be weaker without the extra oomph that comes from the beans. You can also use those pods in a different way.
“Personally, when I have scraped out the seeds from a pod, I throw the scraped pod in a jar with granulated sugar; it flavors the sugar with an intense vanilla aroma and taste,” Dumas said. “I keep topping it off with more sugar and it makes really delicious vanilla sugar for the outside of fried donuts, snickerdoodles or a vanilla latte type thing. That’s another interesting way to get the most bang for your buck with vanilla pods.”
When it comes to choosing alcohol, you have several options. Most opt for vodka because the flavor is neutral. Feel free to use the cheapest vodka you can find — all the flavor comes from the vanilla anyway. However, you can also substitute bourbon or rum.
“Bourbon was one of my favorites,” Dumas said. “Just keep in mind that you know bourbon has quite a lot of flavor on its own as does rum and any other spirit. You run the risk of losing some of the more delicate notes of vanilla. Don’t be afraid to experiment, I guess. You can choose flavors that vanilla plays well with.”
Whichever spirit you choose, use approximately 8 ounces of at least 70-proof alcohol per four to six vanilla beans, which is the same standard issued by the Food and Drug Administration. An 80-proof alcohol will be even better for the extraction process.
You will also need some sort of receptacle to let the extract develop. A mason jar will work well.
“You can upcycle any pretty jars sitting around in your house,” Enjaian said. “Some kombucha brands use jars that are perfect for this.”
Kathy Savoie, extension educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said to make sure you sterilize your receptacle before you use it by boiling it in water for 10 minutes.
Preparing vanilla extract
To prepare vanilla extract, start by cutting your vanilla beans open lengthwise, scooping out the seeds (which, fun fact, are also known as vanilla caviar) into an airtight container. You can also use the whole pod, if you prefer.
“It is also worth it to pack as much vanilla into the bottle with the vodka as you can afford,” Dumas said. “It will make for a stronger, more flavorful extract sooner.”
Pour enough vodka over the beans and seeds to cover them.
“For a six ounce container, you want to put in four to six pods that would be for a full extract ratio,” Dumas said. “You can get away with less but it’s going to be weaker tasting or take longer to get to its full taste.”
The beans will become a little slimy if they aren’t almost fully submerged. Enjaian said she cuts her vanilla pods to fit the jar before she puts them in.
Secure the lid on the jar and shake vigorously. Then, store the jar in a cool, dark place, like a cabinet or pantry. Shake the jar every day for the first week or so, and then once a week after that.
“Weekly shaking of the jar helps to develop flavor and move the vanilla bean seeds out of the pod and into the extract,” Savoie said.
For the most flavorful final product, you can let your extract bloom for up to six to 12 months before using it.
Using homemade vanilla extract
As you use the vanilla extract, you can continuously top off the alcohol and add more vanilla beans to extend the life of your extract. Give it a shake after you refill and give it a shake before each use, too.
Homemade vanilla extract will last for several years, but after about a year of frequent use and replenishing, you might find the vanilla flavor less intense. To amp it up, simply remove old beans, add fresh beans, shake, and continue to use and refill.
Once you make your own vanilla extract, Dumas considered you to think beyond sweet treats.
“There’s an herbaceousness or a woodiness sometimes, a little bit of spiciness that lends itself well to breaking out of the mode of putting it in cookies and into poultry or seafood,” Dumas said. “I would encourage people to think about vanilla beyond dessert. If you do poached lobster in a vanilla beurre blanc, it’s super, super delicious.”
An alcohol-free alternative
If you would prefer not to use alcohol, The Spruce Eats shows you how to go about doing that using vegetable glycerin in place of alcohol. Your finished extract will be slightly more syrupy and lighter than alcohol-based vanilla extract, but it will have a lovely flavor and function in recipes as well as any other vanilla extract.