Wednesday, September 18, 2013

DIY Vanilla Extract (Essence)

Vanilla, most likely the world's most recognized and universally loved flavor, finds its extract, or essence, as a staple in nearly every pantry.  Bringing floral notes reminiscent of swaying palms and tropical islands, vanilla enhances sweet and savory recipes in addition to perfumes and household aromas.  The scent of vanilla is said to have calming and soothing effects and has even been used to combat mild sleep disorders.  But for me?  Vanilla just smells happy.

Dating back over 1,000 years, we have the Totonac Indians of Mexico to thank for the actual "discovery" of the vanilla orchid and its treasured pods.  In the 1500's, Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortés brought the precious beans back to Spain where they gained favor throughout Europe, particularly with the upper class including Queen Elizabeth l (who is known to have had an incredible sweet tooth).  Then, nearly 150 years later we can thank our own Thomas Jefferson for returning the beans to the Americas where his great love of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream brought a recipe that is currently stored in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Tongan Vanilla Beans

Sharing the vanilla love with Queen Elizabeth and Thomas Jefferson, vanilla beans and extracts are often my souvenir of choice when traveling.  Beautifully plump and fragrant Tahitian beans came home with me from the South Pacific while extracts of all sorts have found their way into my suitcase from all over the Caribbean as well as Europe.

DIY Homemade Vanilla Extract
Extract- minutes after filling bottles
Unfortunately, my current budget doesn't allow a quick trip to Tahiti every time I run out of beans, and frankly, pure store bought extracts can be fairly expensive and don't always taste good.

Hence, we've been making our own extract for years.  Extraordinarily easy to put together, homemade Vanilla Extract makes a special hostess or teacher gift for the holiday season or simply any special occasion.  By starting now, you too can have Homemade Vanilla Extract ready in time for this year's holiday season or for your own baking.  We'll show you how!

DIY Vanilla Extract requires only a few items, vanilla beans, bottles or jars, and some sort of alcohol.  Over the years (and since I can't fly to Tahiti to refill my pantry), Beanilla has become my vendor of choice.  With numerous varieties of vanilla beans, there is a favorite for everyone.

Vanilla Beans from Beanilla
Personal favorites for me include my beloved Tahitian Vanilla Bean known for its dreamlike floral fragrance and ability to pair wonderfully with my other love... chocolate.  In addition, the Madagascar, or Bourbon Bean  (probably the most widely available vanilla bean), brings the rich, creamy, sweet and almost buttery flavor that most people have come to associate with vanilla.  Note that the Bourbon (Madagascar) vanilla beans are named for the island from which they originate, not the alcoholic beverage with the same name.

This year I've branched out and am adding a few new varieties to my repertoire.  Most intriguing is the Ugandan Bean which is said to have a bold, rich flavor that I am anticipating will make a fabulous extract.  Also new on my list is the Mexican Bean, whose extract I've purchased in the past but have never made my own.  Just a few days into our 2013 vanilla extract project, I'm finding both beans making lovely amber extracts which are beginning to take on heavenly aromas.

Jars for Vanilla Extract
Once you have your beans, you need bottles or jars.  For my home pantry, I sometimes use a plain, large jar that's easy to refill, but for gift giving I'm always on the lookout for something a little prettier.  This year Beanilla has a lovely selection of glass bottles and jars with either corks or clasp tops and I've indulged in a few of each.

Next, you need the alcohol.  Pure vanilla extract has two ingredients, vanilla beans and alcohol, and I've found the most popular alcohol used in extracts is vodka.  With its lack of flavor, vodka works as a blank slate and is ideal to pick up the nuances of each variety of bean.  That said, I also love a vanilla extract made with bourbon, Maker's Mark being my bourbon of choice.  With its light, sweet taste, Maker's Mark enhances the sweetness and floral notes of the vanilla creating a rich and fragrant extract.

DIY Homemade Vanilla Extract
Pour alcohol of choice over the beans  (about 5 beans to 8 oz. of alcohol) to cover.  Close the bottle and allow to sit for about 8 weeks, giving it a shake ever so often.
To make the extract I slice the beans in half to fit into small bottles, then run the tip of a sharp knife down the side (lengthwise) of the bean but not cutting all the way through.  Place the beans into the jar and cover with your alcohol of choice.  At this point I love watching the clear liquid slowly take on a lovely amber hue which will continue to darken over the next few weeks.

Store the bottles in a cool, dry and dark place for about 8 weeks and your extract will be ready to share.

DIY Homemade Vanilla Extract
DIY Vanilla Extract (Essence) - 24 hour after covering with alcohol

DIY Homemade Vanilla Extract (Essence)
Sweet, rich and bursting with the essence of the tropics, once you try making your own Vanilla Extract you'll never buy it in the store again!
Printer Friendly

Vanilla beans
jars or bottles
alcohol of choice (usually vodka, but may use bourbon or even rum)

Cut vanilla beans in half if bottle is short (so beans will fit).  Using the tip of a sharp knife, slice the side of the bean (lengthwise), but not all the way through (I like it when some of the seeds seep out into the liquid).

Drop the beans into a clean and dry bottle or jar.  (Use about 5 beans per 8 oz. of alcohol for a traditional single-fold vanilla extract. Add additional beans as desired for a stronger, richer extract.)  Pour alcohol over the beans to cover.  

Close the jar of bottle, and place in a cool, dry location for about 8 weeks.  Give the bottles a good shake every so often to distribute the liquid and beans.


  1. I love homemade vanilla extract, but I had no idea there were so many different kinds of beans to choose from. :-) I'm so inspired and will be scouring specialty shops to see what I can find. :-)

  2. Gosh I had no idea there are so many types of vanilla beans. I will definitely have to source some of those and make some extracts as I really love the flavour of vanilla and use it so often.

  3. Lovely. Love the idea, wouldn't these be great hostess gifts. They are the best.

  4. Awesome! Would you have a source for the bottles and corks?

    1. Kelly, I'm loving those bottles!! We actually got them with the Vanilla Beans at Beanilla! Good prices, and they are really, really cute. The links are in the post above!

  5. Don't pay the expensive prices at specialty shops when you can go online and get vanilla beans in bulk for so much less per bean. and are both reputable online dealers.

  6. Kim, as much as I adore the pictures of the essence slowly turning amber from the vanilla beans, I can't help but think of your garden by the plumeria blossom beautifully photobombing some of the shots. Seriously, those bottles and the DIY vanilla are undeniably a treasure to have in the pantry. Nice work my friend!

    1. Brooks, whenever I pick some of our plumerias I think of you!!

  7. Oh Kim, thanks for this wonderful tutorial! I had no idea there were so many varieties of vanilla beans. I'm sure that once you make your own vanilla, like so many other things, you never want to use store-bought again.

    1. Thanks Chris!! I'm still discovering new beans, and I'm amazed at the flavor differences.... now to learn which goes best with what!

  8. Kim, I had no idea that you could make homemade vanilla. Your bottles are gorgeous, and make great gidts willed with Vanilla Essence. Thanks for sharing!

  9. This is the first time to learn there are so many kinds of vanilla beans! I am currently using Costco's vanilla extract (cheap! not sure if it's good quality...), but I should try making my own!


Your comments make our hearts sing!