ASB Basics: All About Vanilla (and recipe for homemade Vanilla Extract)
A worldwide favorite, vanilla is the most widely used flavor in baking.
After saffron, it is also the most expensive flavoring. People who don't bake a lot can buy a tiny bottle of pure vanilla extract to last them years, however buying good quality vanilla in small bottles is an expense that adds up for frequent home bakers. To solve this problem, I make my own vanilla. For much less money, I can make much more vanilla extract that's also better quality. Homemade vanilla extract is just two ingredients: vodka and vanilla pods, unlike many commercial extracts that contain dyes, sugars, and other additives. You also get the benefit of the little vanilla beans in your extract, which amplify flavor and give a luxurious appearance in baked goods. Your homemade extract will last indefinitely and you'll never again buy it at the store.
Here I'll explain how to make better vanilla much cheaper than the commercial stuff.
Understanding Vanilla Related Terms
Here is what I learned when I started making my own vanilla. I'll clear up some common misconceptions and explain terms to look out for.
Bourbon Vanilla-- Bourbon vanilla does not refer to the alcohol Bourbon. In fact, you would hardly ever find vanilla made with bourbon unless you were at a specialty store. Commercial vanilla is made with pure alcohol and made at home with vodka. Bourbon refers to the French island near Madagascar where vanilla is often grown. This is the most common type of vanilla grown and used commercially. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla (V. planifolia) is the same species as Indonesian vanilla.
Tahitian Vanilla-- This Vanilla (V. tahitensis) is a slightly different species, notably more fragrant and floral than Bourbon (Madagascar Vanilla). I make Bourbon and Tahitian vanilla extract and use them both in my baking. I tend to use Bourbon for a stronger, more standard vanilla flavor that stands up to all ingredients in a baked good, and Tahitian vanilla when vanilla is the main flavor. For example, if I'm making a chocolate dessert to which I want to add vanilla, I'll use bourbon vanilla because the special fragrance of Tahitian vanilla would be lost.
Mexican Vanilla- This species (V. pompona) is somewhat more exotic and less used in baking.
Grades of Vanilla-- Grades of vanilla refer more to their uses rather than their quality. The main grades you'll use are Grade A (Prime) and Grade B (Extract Grade). Again, Grade B doesn't mean it's worse than Grade A. Grade A is best for regular cooking--If you want to add the beans to a batter or a dough. Grade B tends to be dryer and is used to make extract.
Vanilla can be quite expensive, especially at the grocery store. For this reason, I strongly recommend buying your vanilla in a higher quantity online. I buy my vanilla beans from Vanilla Products USA, which are available on Amazon--which means free shipping with Prime.
How to make your own extract:
1 glass bottle (must close airtight) I used one like this
5 vanilla beans
8 fl oz (235ml) cheap vodka
Using a sharp knife, split the vanilla beans length-wise.
Stick them in the bottle.
Fill the bottle with the vodka.
Close the bottle.
Shake once or or twice daily for 4 weeks.
After 4 weeks, use as normal vanilla extract.