If you bake a lot then you know that one of the most used ingredients in baking is vanilla. I use vanilla in almost all sweet things that come out of my kitchen. It really is a key ingredient that I can not live without. Vanilla gives a warm, sweet and indulgent flavour to all your bakes. You can, of course, use fresh vanilla pods but many recipes will ask for vanilla extract or vanilla paste instead. Aside from using it in most of my cakes and cookies I also add it to sweet sauces and buttercream frostings. Try adding a dash of vanilla extract to your Greek yoghurt to give it an extra dimension!
Real vanilla vs vanilla flavouring
Here’s the thing though, not all vanilla is created equal. Many of the vanilla flavourings you will find in the supermarket aren’t even made with actual vanilla. A lot of the cheaper vanilla flavourings (and vanilla flavoured products) are actually made with vanillin. This is the synthetic twin to vanilla. It is artificially made as a substitute for real vanilla. Real vanilla is a lot more expensive than artificial vanillin.
Real vanilla is expensive because it is actually quite rare. The orchid plant that produces vanilla pods only grows in certain parts of the world and most pollinating has to be done by hand. The pollination can only take place when the flower is in bloom and that only happens once a year! Only if this is timed correctly will the plant produce the vanilla beans. Once the vanilla beans are ripe they are picked, but not yet ready for use. First, the beans have to be cured for several months. After curing they are ready to be used in recipes or processed into extracts and pastes. As you can see the entire process is very time consuming and also very labour intensive. I bet you don’t think vanilla is a boring flavour anymore, now you know the process behind it.
DIY vanilla extract
Authentic vanilla extract is an expensive product and if you use it a lot I might have a more budget-friendly option for you. Making your own vanilla extract is extremely easy, all you need is 2 ingredients and some time. I made my first batch of homemade vanilla extract about five years ago and still have a little bit left. Since it is made with only vanilla beans and pure vodka I’d say the shelf life is pretty much indefinite. I use it a lot, and my 1-litre bottle lasted well over 5 years. A little goes a long way when it comes to vanilla, as you only need to add one or two teaspoons to most recipes.
The beans & the booze
The vanilla beans that I used for the first batch were bought online. Unfortunately, the quality wasn’t all that great. Instead of nice plump juicy beans, I got dried out brittle ones. So rather than throwing them away, I used them for the extract and it still turned out great. As for the vodka, this is the only time I will advise you to go for the cheap stuff. There is absolutely no need to buy an expensive premium brand for this extract. You will not find a difference in the end product since you will not be drinking it. (Although you could, of course, use your homemade vanilla extract instead of vanilla vodka in cocktails as well!)
My first bottle of vanilla extract is not used up completely, but since it takes a couple of weeks before you can use the new one I am already going to make a new batch. I made my first batch in a glass bottle with a stopper because it looked pretty and was easy to open and close. You could also make it in the bottle that the vodka comes in. Just make sure it is a clear bottle so you can see the colour of the liquid. If you use the vodka bottle itself I would also suggest pouring out about one shot, to make some room for the vanilla beans. And since we’re not about to waste that shot I’d say ‘Cheers!’
How to make your own vanilla extract
To make the vanilla extract all you have to do is cut open the vanilla beans lengthwise, add the beans to the vodka and give it a little shake. You then put the bottle away in a dark cabinet (you can also just keep it on a shelf but make sure it is not in direct sunlight). I like to shake up the bottle every week to see how the extract is coming along. The longer you wait the darker the mixture will become. As you can see in the pictures of my original extract the colour is as dark as espresso coffee. Remember, the darker the colour the better the flavour. Wait at least 8 weeks before using your homemade extract, but the longer you let it sit the better the flavour will be. The flavour and aroma will continue to get richer over time.
Tips for the best homemade vanilla extract
- I use vodka because it has a very neutral flavour. I have seen recipes using rum or bourbon but since these have a more distinct flavour I still prefer using vodka. You need alcohol to extract the vanilla flavour from the beans. Don’t worry about using it in your bakes, you only use a tiny amount and this will evaporate in most recipes.
- Vanilla beans are expensive to buy. Try going online to find a good deal. You will be making a large batch of extract that is going to last you years. In the end, this will be cheaper than buying the smaller ready-made bottles of vanilla extract. On top of that making your own means you are fully in charge of the process, you know exactly what is in the bottle you use.
- Smaller bottles of homemade vanilla extract make a great holiday gift! Pour the extract into smaller bottles, maybe add a small vanilla pod for an authentic look, stick on a nice label and you have a wonderful gift.
- Once your bottle of vanilla extract is (almost) empty you can reuse the beans once more to make vanilla sugar! Take the beans out of the bottle and let them dry for a few days. Then add the beans to a bag or jar of sugar and let it sit for a few weeks. The beans will continue to give off more of their precious vanilla flavour and aroma.
Use your homemade vanilla extract:
- Bake these decadent Brownies with a rich chocolate flavour, a fudgy middle and crispy edges.
- Try these one-bowl Vegan Banana Cranberry Muffins, they are easy to make and healthy enough to have for breakfast!
- These Meringue Nests with Lemon Curd and Mini Eggs are perfect to celebrate springtime.
- Brew a mug of The Best Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte with real pumpkin puree, maple syrup and warming spices!
Or try one of these sweet treats:
- These Apple Rose Puff Pastries are the prettiest individual apple pies you'll ever see. They look like elegant roses and are perfect for a special occasion.
- Sweet cranberry sauce, creamy brie cheese and flaky crescent rolls come together to create this delicious Cranberry Brie Wreath. This delicious holiday appetizer will steal the show on your brunch table.
- Try this Eton Mess with Lemon Curd and Fresh Berries. It puts a zesty spin on this classic dessert that makes it perfect for spring and summer!