Make Your Own Vanilla Extract
Vanilla may be one of the most popular dessert flavors. From straight up vanilla ice cream to baked goods made with vanilla extract, most of us have been tasting vanilla all our lives.
Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices on the market. Buying the pure extract is costly, and if you are not careful about the quality of the extract you are buying you could be consuming petrochemicals and byproducts from the wood industry.
Did you know that vanilla beans come from an orchid?
Did you know every vanilla bean is hand pollinated?
Vanilla is an interesting plant and it has a rich history.
There are over 100 species of vanilla orchids in the world, but only three main species are cultivated for vanilla production. Most of our vanilla comes from Vanilla planifolia. The spanish word, vaina or vainilla means ‘little sheath’.
This vine orchid is native to Mexico where it’s been used medicinally for hundreds if not thousands of years. As far as we know, the Totonaco were the first peoples to harvest vanilla. After the Aztecs conquered the Totonaco they became connoisseurs of this exotic fruit.
In 1528, Montezuma introduced Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes to the “Drink of the Gods”. Cortes returned to Spain bringing Xocolatl or cocoa and vanilla with him. For hundreds of years vanilla was a highly sought-after spice in Europe, only affordable by royalty.
After the Europeans discovered vanilla they tried desperately to grow it themselves but for over three hundreds years they were unsuccessful. Then, in 1836, botanist Charles Francois Antoine Morren noticed that, after bees pollinated the vanilla orchid, the fruit would appear several days later. He began to experiment with hand pollinating the flowers himself and thus vanilla started to be cultivated outside of Mexico.
Today vanilla is still hand pollinated using a technique developed in 1841 by Edmond Albius, a 12 year old slave who lived on the island of Reunion.
Vanilla is so incredibly expensive because of the enormous amount of time and care that goes into every bean pod.
Each orchid flower produces one vanilla bean pod after it’s been hand pollinated. The orchid flowers only bloom for one day so the timing is everything!
Once a flower has been pollinated the bean pod will take around 10 months to mature. It has to be harvested at the right time to ensure the highest quality. After the vanilla bean pod is harvested it goes through an extensive curing process.
Not many herbalists use vanilla medicinally today, probably due to the high cost of the beans. Historically, vanilla has been used as an aphrodisiac, for stomach pain, coughs, as both a stimulating and relaxing nervine, and even for venomous bites.
Herbalist Kiva Rose tells me she often includes vanilla tincture in nervine tonic formulas along with oat straw and evening primrose.
Making your own vanilla extract is easy, cost efficient and makes a great gift.
To make your own vanilla extract you will need….
- At least 12 vanilla beans, possibly more if giving as a gift
Click here for whole, organic vanilla beans…
- 2 cups of vodka
- pint jar
Begin by cutting the vanilla beans in half and then scraping out the innards. After the pods are scraped I like to cut them in half so that they stay submerged in the vodka.
Place all of the vanilla beans, including the scrapings, in the pint jar. Fill the jar with the vodka and put on the lid.
Let sit for 4-6 weeks. After this time, taste the extract to see if the taste is strong enough. Your vanilla extract should be done after 4-6 weeks and it will also improve with time, just like a fine wine. The color of the extract should be a rich amber color.
The vanilla beans can stay in the mixture indefinitely. I’ve heard recommendations that you can keep refilling the jar with vodka after it is 1/4 empty.
If you are giving this as a gift I recommend straining off the vanilla pods and putting the extract in an amber bottle with a new vanilla pod. (After you strained the vanilla pods, dry them out and put them in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar.)
If you are sensitive to alcohol or have concerns about using alcohol you could try using this same technique but use glycerin as an extract instead. Vanilla extracts that you buy at the store are typically 35% alcohol.
Many people use vanilla extract simply for baking, but now that you have a delicious high quality extract sitting on your shelf you’ll want to use it for more than cookies. Try some in your beverages, teas, coffee and even hot cocoa. Use vanilla when making syrups, oatmeal and even when cooking savory dishes. Because of its high volatile oil content always add vanilla at the end of the cooking process to avoid cooking off the flavor. What’s your favorite way to use vanilla? Please share below!
We know you have enough to think about this holiday season so to make things easy for you we have labels that you can download and print below. You can cut them out and attach them with clear packaging tape. Or you could print them on a full label sheet.
P.S. Remember to support you local herb shops this Holiday Season. If you do not have one, then you can get whole vanilla beans right here at Mountain Rose Herbs.
BONUS: Vanilla Extract Label Template!
Would you like my template for the label you see on the bottle above?
This can be opened in MS Word, Apple Pages, or any free software such as OpenOffice.org. Feel free to change the font or add your own designs. Simply print on plain paper and tape to bottles with clear packaging tape.