November 9, 2009

DIY Vanilla Extract to the Rescue!

Ok, I know this post is long overdue (especially since Patrick took these lovely pictures in August!) It's been a busy fall, honest! But I have a lot of new post ideas and I wanted to get this one up asap because this recipe is really affordable and makes for very cool holiday gifts, but it takes a few weeks to develop so if you want to do it, I suggest getting started soon!

Did you know I have a super power? I have the UNCANNY ABILITY to remember the prices of various grocery store items from store to store. And because with this great power comes the great responsibility of imparting my knowledge onto you, I must issue a warning:

Don't buy McCormick vanilla extract!

For one, it has corn syrup in it. For two, it's overpriced. At Key Foods in Brooklyn, it's $6.99 for 2 oz., and it's the only kind of vanilla they sell. At a Food Emporium in Manhattan, I saw 2 oz. for $8.99 (?!!) But at both Sunac natural market in my 'hood (which is overpriced on pretty much everything else) and at Whole Foods, organic vanilla extract is $6.49.

I know, I know. I just saved you at least $0.50. You can repay me with hoards of organic cupcakes later. But wait, there's more!

I think $6.49 is still pretty pricey for 2 oz. of vanilla. So does Carolyn's aunt, who sent her a recipe for a DIY version that she passed on to me. And it's really simple: Put vanilla beans into vodka!

Now, I know you have vodka (any old kind will do.) The issue is getting some vanilla beans. Sunac and Whole Foods sell them in two packs for $10-12. Two won't make much extract though, and you can get much better deals online. For $12, I got 20 (20!!) long-length Tahitian beans from The Organic Vanilla Bean Company on Ebay, plus free shipping.

I was sold on their picturesque straight-from-the-farm image, but there are a lot of other options for buying in bulk online. A few others that I found were Vanilla, Saffron Imports and Boston Vanilla Beans.

I split three beans down the middle to expose the seeds and put them in this 5 oz. bottle that formerly housed Trader Joe's toasted sesame oil (well-cleaned of course! The bottle in the first picture is a slightly larger former salad dressing bottle.) Then you just fill it with vodka, or even bourbon or rum if you want to give it a more distinct flavor. It should take at least 4 weeks for the extract to develop, and it gets better and stronger the longer you leave the beans in. Just give the bottle a shake every few days to keep things moving along!

If you use the seeds of a vanilla bean for cooking (which I may have to do, considering I have plenty more), you can throw the rest of the bean into your extract stash, and if the beans start looking really mushy, you can replace them with new ones or just take them out altogether. And every time you use some of the extract, you can top the bottle off with a little more liquor to soak up more of the bean-y goodness.

So, some quick math. If I took a 1.5 liter bottle (about 50 oz) of vodka for $30, plus $12 in beans, and put 4 beans into each of five 10 oz. bottles, that's 50 oz. of extract for $42, or $0.84 an oz. That's about the same price as cheap-o imitation vanilla extract (which is made from byproducts of either wood or coal manufacturing - eek!) And for as long as this post is, actually putting the extract together is faster than, I dunno, a speeding bullet? So you have no excuses.

As far as buying locally goes, to me the beans fall into the same category as coffee, in that it's a small item that can't be produced locally, and supporting organic agriculture overseas is a happy little pat on the back to the planet. More on that when I get to the "responsibly" post...coming soon!


  1. Vodka is for drinking. If you cook with it, you take all the fun out of it. No homemade gifts for Christmas!!!

  2. i know, what is with the vanilla extract industry?! i have been appalled by their crazy prices too. i finally had it one day after tristan picked up a bottle for me on his way home (having bought the "large one" to save money and trips to the store since i use it so much)... $17 for 4 oz?!! just to spite the manufacturer and the store, i used the measly 1 tsp i needed that night and then returned it the next day. ha! after that i went on a major hunt... and won. spice supreme: 99c for 1oz! pure ingredients. water, alcohol, extractives of vanilla beans. whenever you run out of ingredients for your DIY method, if you're interested, i'll point ya in the direction of this magical store. :)