Homemade Vanilla Extract: Everything You Need to Know

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Making homemade vanilla extract is a savvy baker’s way of saving money in the kitchen. Homemade vanilla extract is the gift that keeps on giving, thanks to the ability to recycle the ingredients from previous batches and its long shelf life. Even the most beginner baker can follow the cheap, easy process of making and remaking homemade vanilla extract.  

How Many Times Can You Reuse Vanilla Beans to Make Extract?

Homemade vanilla beans are reusable for at least one new batch. Keep in mind that beans lose some of their flavors in every batch of extract. 

The potency of reused beans will vary based on how long they steeped in the previous batch – batches steeped for 3 months will have more flavor remaining than a 6 month steeped batch. Whenever recycling vanilla beans, be sure to add at least one unused pod to the batch for maximum flavor. 

What Type of Vanilla Beans Should Be Used for Making Extract?

Fresh vanilla beans

Vanilla beans are sold based on origin (Vanilla can only be grown 10-20 degrees North or South of the equator, so the product is nearly always imported) and grade quality. 

  • Grade A: Grade A vanilla beans are grown and sold for cooking. Considered “gourmet” beans, Grade A vanilla beans have a richer flavor and tend to be found in desserts, ice cream, and beverages. They are more expensive than Grade B beans but work just as well for extraction. 
  • Grade B: Grade B vanilla beans are grown and sold for extraction. These beans are dryer and more brittle than Grade A beans, with a more fruity flavor. Their cost-effective nature and dry conditions make them ideal for seeping into an extract.
  • Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla: Madagascar vanilla beans have a rich, traditional vanilla flavor with a fruity after taste.
  • Indonesian Planifolia Vanilla: Indonesian vanilla beans are sweet with a woody aroma and taste somewhat like figs.
  • Tahitian Vanilla: Tahitian vanilla has a sweeter vanilla flavor with a spicy anise aftertaste and tastes somewhat like cherries.
  • Mexican Vanilla: Mexican vanilla beans have a spicy and sweet flavor similar to nutmeg or clove. 

How Many Vanilla Bean Pods Are Needed to Make Extract?

The number of vanilla bean pods needed to make extract depends on the desired quantity of extract. One cup of vanilla bean extract requires 5-6 bean pods or just about 1 gram of vanilla beans scraped from the pod. Mix reused pods or beans with at least 1/4 their amount in fresh beans.

What Kind of Alcohol Is Best for Making Vanilla Extract?

Technically, any alcohol above 80 proof works well for making vanilla extract. However, vodka is the alcohol of choice for a neutral vanilla extract flavor and is frequently recommended as the “beginner’s” choice. Using brandy, bourbon, or other darker alcohols makes a more complex flavor that adds some spice and variety to the extract.

The quality of the alcohol does not matter when making vanilla bean extract. Go for a cheaper brand of alcohol and better quality vanilla beans to make a decent extract.

How Long Should Vanilla Beans Steep In Alcohol When Making Extract?

The time to steep vanilla beans varies based on the recipe and desired flavor. The longer vanilla beans steep in alcohol, the richer the flavor of the extract will be.

Steeping vanilla beans for 12 weeks is the general rule of thumb for decent extract. Most recipes recommend allowing the vanilla beans to steep for 6 months for a rich and full-bodied vanilla bean extract. Some dedicated vanilla-lovers will steep beans for up to 2 years for full-flavor. 

Why Is Alcohol Used In Vanilla Bean Extracts But Not Imitation Extracts?

The FDA requires that all true vanilla products be at least 35% alcohol. The alcohol works to age the vanilla and preserves the extract to near indefinite shelf-life.

Imitation vanilla does not smell like alcohol because it does not require it in the recipe. Imitation vanilla consists of chemical vanillin, which can be made without any vanilla at all, and may contain 2% of alcohol simply for preservative purposes. 

How to Reduce the Smell of Alcohol in the Vanilla Extract?

Homemade vanilla extract carries quite the punch initially. However, as the vanilla ages and the extract begins to darken in color, the smell and flavor of alcohol will mellow out.

But, if the smell and flavor of the alcohol remain too much after the desired aging period ends, there’s a simple trick to reduce the alcohol’s presence: add a little sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar per pint of extract to soften the alcohol. The sugaring method applied at the beginning of extraction also helps initiate aging faster, if desired. 

How to Make Different Flavors of Vanilla Bean Extract?

Different flavors of vanilla bean extract are achievable by varying the type of alcohol used, the bean used, and the length of aging. 

Traditional Vanilla ExtractSmooth Vanilla ExtractSpicy Vanilla Extract
Recommended Vanilla BeanMadagascar or IndonesianMadagascar or Indonesian  Mexican or Tahitian
Recommended Aging6 months (or more)12 months12 months (or more)
Recommended AlcoholVodkaVodka or BourbonRum or Bourbon
Recommended AdditivesNoneSugar to tasteSugar to taste

How to Store Vanilla Bean Extract?

vanilla beans extract

Vanilla bean extract requires very little storing maintenance. Store the extract in a cool, dark room that stays around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius). Keep away from heat sources like the stove or microwave. Use a dark-colored, air-tight bottle to store the extract. Dark glass or plastic prevents UV rays and light, which cause evaporation of the alcohol, from penetrating the bottle. 

How to Separate and Store Aged Extract?

Once vanilla extract has aged to the desired flavor, the extract divides easily up into smaller bottles if desired. Be sure that the smaller bottles are dark glass or plastic. Use a funnel to pour vanilla extract from the large storage container into the smaller bottles without wasting a drop. 

Does Vanilla Bean Extract Expire?

Vanilla bean extract has practically an indefinite shelf-life if kept in a cool, dark place and stored in an air-tight container. Because of the high alcohol proof used in extract, vanilla bean extract remains safely preserved against bacteria for years. 

In terms of flavor, it’s best to use the extract within five years. Additionally, the extract may evaporate and lose potency if exposed to sunlight or if left uncovered for long periods of time. 

Shopping Hack: How To Pick the Best Vanilla Beans For Extraction?

vanilla beans curl

Aside from shopping by origin and grade of vanilla bean, the actual state of the bean should be moist. If vanilla beans clink in the jar or feel dry to the touch, they are not in good condition. Beans should curl and wrap around a finger if they are in good shape for extraction. 

How to Store Vanilla Beans Saved for Making Extract?

Vanilla beans awaiting extraction or being held for a different use need storing in an air-tight container. Wrap the beans in wax paper or plastic wrap before storing them in an air-tight container to help preserve moisture. For an additional layer of protection, add sugar to the container to coat the vanilla. 

Like vanilla bean extract, vanilla beans need storing in a cool, dark place like a cabinet or pantry. The ideal storage temperature for vanilla sits around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) for optimal results.

Do Vanilla Beans Expire?  

Unlike vanilla bean extract, vanilla beans do expire. Properly stored vanilla beans last up to two years. This shelf-life reduces when exposed to light or heat. Mold may develop on beans exposed to too much moisture, do not add water or liquid to the beans while storing. 

Recycling Hack: How to Rehydrate Dried Up Vanilla Beans? 

If vanilla beans become exposed to heat or air, they will shrivel and dry up. To rehydrate beans, place them in a shallow bowl and cover them in water for at least ten minutes to soften the pods.

Can Dehydrated Vanilla Be Used For Vanilla Extract?

Yes, dehydrated vanilla works for vanilla extract recipes. However, because the alcohol must first rehydrate the vanilla before extraction begins, it may take longer for the aging process. Additionally, dehydrated vanilla may lose some of its flavors thus requiring more beans to achieve a full flavor. 

How to Recycle Reused Vanilla Beans After a Second Batch?

Once used for two batches of extract, vanilla beans do not need throwing out right away. Instead, repurpose the beans for another use. For these repurposes, do not let the vanilla pods dry out. Use them right after removing them from the extract container.

Vanilla Sugar

To start, pat the pods dry but do not let them dry out internally. Place the used pods at the bottom of a small container of sugar crystals. Let the used pods sit for at least two weeks (four weeks for a stronger vanilla flavor). Shake the container periodically for even distribution of flavor. The vanilla sugar works for baking, coffee, and other cooking projects.

Vanilla Salt

To start, pat the pods dry but do not let them dry out internally. Place the used pods at the bottom of a small container of salt crystals. Let the used pods sit for at least two weeks or longer. Be sure to shake the container frequently for even distribution. Vanilla salt can act as a topping for cookies, pudding, brownies, or other sweets. 

Vanilla Simple Syrup

Boil equal parts water and sugar with the used vanilla pods in the pot. Simmer ingredients until the sugar melts completely. Store in a temperature-safe, air-tight container in a cool place or the refrigerator.

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