Saturday, June 26, 2010

How to make Vanilla

Moving to a new place is usually a bit disorienting, especially when it's the other side of the world.

Being accustomed to a variety of health food stores, and even great finds at regular grocery stores, moving to a place with very little resources of this type took some adjusting.

One of these adjustments was trying to find something as simple as vanilla. Everywhere I looked there was fake vanilla flavoured junk. Yes - junk, really. Coumarin (a known toxic substance banned in the US since the 1950s, a derivative of this substance is warfarin - rat poison) was originally used for an artificial vanilla flavour (1880s) but for obvious reasons it is now banned. However artificial vanilla bought from Mexico or the Caribbean can still contain this substance. Since then, vanilla has been made from guaiacol (a petrochemical) or from lignin (waste by product of the sulfite pulping process to make wood pulp into paper - yum!). Most vanilla now is made from former of the two. (You may remember from my xenoestrogen post that petrochemicals are estrogen mimickers.) Needless to say, I'm not too keen about consuming any of that stuff.

Next I try to find natural, real vanilla, made with real vanilla beans. In Canada, our favourite vanilla was alcohol free, I didn't have such hopes in finding anything like that here. However, I was hoping to find some real vanilla. I had no idea how hard that could be. Even the health food store (the one and only) in the town closest to us had no vanilla (at all) and in another town where I found some, to my dismay, sugar was on the list of ingredients - in a health food store. Now I know that a lot of things found in health food stores are not actually healthy, but come on - sugar?

Ok. So here is where I decided to take matters into my own hands. Sure, vanilla is not a necessity but it is sure nice, especially when you don't use sugar or an excess of other sweeteners.

 Vanilla is said to the be second most expensive spice, the first being saffron. (Vanilla, however, is used way more than saffron.) When it comes down to it though, you can make your own vanilla for much cheaper than buying if from the stores.

The first thing to do is find vanilla beans. There are different grades of vanilla beans.
-Grade A or Gourmet - whole beans, with no dents or tears, most plump with a higher moisture content, the best choice when using the bean itself in baking
-Grade B -  whole or split beans, can be smaller than Grade A, not as plump, may be split (this means that they were allowed to ripen longer and have more flavour) better for making extract
-Grade C - beans that may have been unripe at picking, tears or damaged, used for non-food related items (soaps, candles, etc.)

Depending on where you buy your beans, sometimes the only difference between Grade A and Grade B is the length, it depends on the source of your beans. Grade B will be cheaper and is generally the preferred Grade for extract.

Vanilla beans are also labeled by which region they come from; Madagascar, Tahitian, Bourbon, Indonesian, etc. They are slightly different varieties with slight differences in taste, etc. The type of bean, in this instance, in really one of preference.

Now for your alcohol. The vanilla bean will be extracted into the alcohol itself, and some people like to mix their medium a bit. Typically vodka is used (and it's the cheapest). You can also add a mix with rum or brandy for a "richer" taste. I have only done vodka myself. You will pay twice as much for the "rich" effect. I found the alcohol is the most expensive part of this process.

It really doesn't matter how much you want to make. Just keep in mind this proportion: 6 vanilla beans for every cup of alcohol. I've found a lot of recipes that have less, we want vanilla extract not vanilla scented alcohol.

Cut your beans in half, and then slit lengthwise. Scrape out the inside.

You can then cut each half again, to make quarters. This is what I do, but it's not necessary. It would be advisable if you have a smaller bottle, you don't want half of the vanilla sticking out of the alcohol.

Stuff all the beans, insides, outsides and all into a coloured glass bottle. You don't want too much light to get to your vanilla.

Fill with alcohol, according to how many beans you put in. (Hint: it helps to count out how many vanilla beans you will cut up before you start everything, instead of counting as you go.) You will want to use 1 cup alcohol (whatever variety) for every 6 beans. You can always include more beans, but if you want a good vanilla, don't use less.

For the at least the first week you will want to shake the bottle quite well every day.

On weeks 2 - 4 be sure to shake it a few times each week.

By week 5 you are technically able to start using your vanilla. Top the bottle up with more alcohol if the beans get exposed. If you can wait and not use the vanilla at this point it would be best. The vanilla will get more mature as time goes on.

After 6 months, (yes, that's a long time) you can filter out the beans. Lots of people like to then add the used beans to sugar to make vanilla sugar, but we don't eat sugar. You can also reuse them in your next batch, but continue with the recipe as if you didn't. I just reused mine, as I hate wasting food, especially something as good as vanilla. I may attempt to make vanilla coconut sugar at some time, but we'll see, I have a few months to go on my current batch of vanilla. (Hint: label the bottle with the date. I labeled it on my calendar, then the year changed and we threw the calendar out.)

We didn't really have much vanilla left after 6 month (we used all but a couple inches of it), but my next batch I made twice as much. Apparently the vanilla will continue to mature indefinitely. It will not get old either. So you can make a lot all at once and keep it around, knowing that it will only get better, like wine, with time.


  1. Gorgeous! Although good vanilla is readily available in my area, making your own is always best. I've only ever used vodka, as well...but I may splurge and use a "richer" base next time. Thanks for the great tutorial! =)

  2. I'm glad you found it enjoyable. Making things yourself seems to be a lost art - but one that is slowly gaining popularity.

  3. Can you tell me where to buy the vanilla beans online? I want to try this!

  4. It really depends where you live. These I bought from ebay. But this was also a couple years ago and was living in Australia at the time. I found buying online was the only realistic way to get enough for me to make a decent batch. Wherever you decide to get them make sure you check into the company to make sure it is what you want (if you desire organic, fair trade, etc.)