Dr. Obvious Comes to Town: How to Make Vanilla Extract at Home

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, especially when it comes to knowing things that have actual, real-world applications. I can go on and on about mostly useless trivia (god bless Master of Arts degrees), but I always seem to be learning basic things that other people have knownsince the 1980s… at least.

That said, Dr. Obvious paid a visit to our quiet, lakeside community recently, and I was flabbergasted to discover the following new (to me) facts:

1. It is possible to make vanilla extract at home.

This should not have been news to me, having descended from a woman who insisted on making her own ketchup, curry pastes, bread, and soup stocks. My mom endeavoured to make as much food from scratch as possible when we were growing up, but somehow, the thought that vanilla extract could also be made at home escaped me until very recently. I just assumed it was untouchable.

I use a ton of vanilla in my kitchen. It goes in my oatmeal every morning, flavours my weekly batch of almond milk, and features prominently in any cake or baked good recipe I test out (for scientific purposes only. Obviously.) Each bottle of vanilla extract runs around a hefty $8-$12 from the store, so discovering that I could make a schwack of vanilla extract– easily, by myself, at home, for a fraction of the cost of the store-bought variety– felt like the Secret of Life had been whispered sweetly into my ear. Homemade vanilla extract! Who knew?

Starting the process off by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol

2. Bourbon = Whiskey

The recipe I found online for homemade vanilla extract called for some bourbon. I ventured out to the local liquor store, post-haste, and scanned the aisles for the telltale “Bourbon” sign. None could be found! I saw signs for Wine, B.C. Wine, Beer, Vodka, Liqueurs, and all sorts of other spirits, but the Bourbon sign was conspicuously absent from the lot.

I felt certain that this was not possible– surely liquor stores sell bourbon… and scotch… and beer (at least if that terrible George Thorogood song has any truth to it whatsoever)– so I focused on the shelves more intently, pleading silently with the myriad bottles to point the way to the bourbon without me having to ask a clerk. (A thing you should know about me and liquor stores: I’m not a drinker at all, so I inevitably end up looking like a wide-eyed, probably underage kid whenever I go into one. It doesn’t help that I’m usually wearing a junior high-appropriate backpack. (Blame commuting by foot.) I’m a tad self-conscious about my lack of liquor store savvy, so I usually overcompensate and pretend I know exactly what I’m doing as I stroll regally through the aisles. This air of overconfidence, in turn, tends to make liquor store clerks suspicious– like I’m not of legal drinking age and/or trying to steal something. Guess how often I get ID’d at liquor stores? Almost every single time. Showing my ID isn’t a huge deal, but it’s awkward and embarrassing to know that the only reason I’m getting carded in the first place is because I’ve acted like a total freak.)

Anyway: bourbon. I lingered in certain sections of the liquor store, trying to locate a godforsaken bottle of bourbon. I knew it wasn’t vodka. I knew it wasn’t wine. Finally, I stumbled into the whiskey section and noted with confusion that there were bottles of scotch, rye, and Irish whiskeys there. Another awkward minute passed, and thankfully, I happened to read the blessed words “bourbon” on a bottle of Jim Beam. Yes! Bourbon!! I snatched it up (in retrospect, a little too swiftly) and then was promptly asked to show my ID to the clerk at the till. Next time I’ll know: bourbon IS whiskey. I might even escape the dreaded ID check– Thank you, Dr. Obvious!

Bless you, Mr. Beam

3. Vanilla is a ‘bean’ in the ‘green’, ‘yellow’, or ‘string’ sense of the term, not in the ‘mung’ or ‘kidney’ sense.

I felt so mature bringing home a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. I win liquor store shopping! I laid it out on the kitchen counter when I got home, along with a clean jar and several vanilla pods.

The recipe calls for a ratio of 4 vanilla beans to 1 cup of bourbon, so I gleefully laid out three long vanilla pods and sliced them open lengthwise, fully expecting tiny “beans”– many more than four of them– to spill forth.

Um….

Vanilla pods are not like pea pods. No spherical pearls of sumptuous vanilla roll out of vanilla pods. For future reference: the long black pods are vanilla beans. Inside the pods, there are only sticky, smaller-than-poppy-seed grits. If you decide to make your own vanilla extract, use four long pods in every one cup of bourbon. (And, on that note, try to buy the vanilla pods in bulk. I bought my first few individually from Planet Organic and ended up paying more for 3 measly beans than I did for approximately 10 beans in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs. Lessons learned, Dr. Obvious– lessons learned!)

The difference between beans and seeds is duly noted

4. “Bourbon” Vanilla Extract can actually be made with vodka.

Be honest: you see a bottle of “Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract” at the store and automatically assume it was made with bourbon whiskey. I did, too! Alas, it was only after I purchased a gigantic bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon that I read more about vanilla extract online. Turns out that the “bourbon” part actually refers to the type of vanilla bean that is used, not the alcohol itself. There are “Tahitian” and “Bourbon” types of vanilla beans, and just about any ol’ alcohol can be used as a base to make your own extract. Just don’t use beer. I think that would be nasty.

I saw several people writing online that they’ve found vodka to be the best when making vanilla extract at home. (Apparently it is one of the most tasteless alcohols around and really allows the vanilla flavour to punch through.) I will happily attempt my own extract with vodka after I’ve guzzled down a whole liter of bourbon-based vanilla extract, but that could take a while… In the meantime, I’m waiting for my Jim Beam-based extract to mature and will definitely report back once I finally crack open the jar. πŸ™‚

One week of sitting, with original Jim Beam bottle on left side for comparison

Two weeks of sitting… only six more weeks to wait!

To Make Your Own Vanilla Extract at Home:

1. Use a ratio of 4 vanilla beans (aka pods, not non-existent pearl-seeds!) to 1 cup of alcohol (bourbon or vodka, though others have reported delicious-tasting vanilla extract with a bottle of Jack Daniels)

2. Slice beans lengthwise and place into clean jar with alcohol.

3. Wait.

4. Gently shake your vanilla brew every couple of days.

5. Use as you would store-bought vanilla extract after 8 weeks of waiting. Patience is a virtue, my friends.

6. Marvel at all the money you saved, simply by putting vanilla beans in a jar with regular ol’ alcohol.

7. Thank Dr. Obvious for coming to town! πŸ™‚

I started off with a modest 3/4 cup of alcohol and 3 vanilla beans, partly because I wanted to test this recipe out before making a gallon of it, but mostly because I had only purchased 3 vanilla pods in advance from Planet Organic. I assumed that 3 pods would contain 30+ seeds/beans inside, but I was so wrong. I’ve since ordered a giant sack of vanilla beans/pods from Mountain Rose Herbs, and I will be adding them to my mostly-full Jim Beam bottle in the next few days.

43 responses

  1. I didn’t know that vanilla could be made at home either. Who knew?

    However, many Kentuckians would beg to differ that Bourbon and whiskey are the same thing. I believe that Bourbon in only made in my fine state. Basically, all Bourbon may be a kind of whiskey, but only whiskey made in Kentucky is Bourbon. Supposedly, we have special limestone formations that filter the water used to make bourbon, or something like that.

    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • I figured you would have something profound to say about bourbon, Kathy. When I saw the word “Kentucky” on the bottle, I thought of you immediately! πŸ™‚ It just goes to show that I *still* no nothing about liquor… just that I rarely drink it. I’m happy to show you my ID if you like. πŸ˜‰

  2. You’re liquor store adventure had me laughing. I’m pretty sure EVERYONE (regardless of alcohol knowledge) feels that way in those places. I have one friend who gets overly excited at the trendy drinks and squeels. At least you didn’t do that.

    • Whenever I’m in a liquor store with my partner, he always pokes fun at me for acting all spooked. I’m a terrible mixture of hyper-self conscious and over-the-top fake blasι… but you’re right: at least I don’t squeal with delight at anything in the store!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting– I appreciate it! πŸ™‚

    • It seems so simple! (Watch it taste totally nasty and gross when I finally get to experiment with it in 6 weeks…) Maybe try it with vodka instead of the bourbon or whiskey, just to be on the safe side.

  3. BOURBON = WHISKEY?!?!?!? Thanks for sharing!

    I have heard about using vodka to make your own vanilla and have been wanting to do that for quite sometime. Thanks for being the guinea pig – with bourbon at least.

    PSSSST… When you are back in town, you can get individual vanilla pods at a little coffee shop on Mason St (just off Cook) called Yoka’s Coffee, Tea and Honey. I think they have different varieties so you can pick and choose to try some at a cheaper cost. They’ve very cost effective at this place. Plus, you can get some bulk BC honey that I refill in my own mason/canning jars. Fun times!

    • Awesome tip, Mary! When I run through my gigantic bag of vanilla pods from Mountain Rose Herbs, I’ll definitely have to check that coffee shop out. It sounds like it’s right up my alley, but I wonder why I never heard of it before (seeing as it was literally right up my alley when I lived in Fernwood?)

      I’ll do a post when the guinea pig jar of vanilla gets its unveiling. Fingers crossed that it’s not gross! πŸ™‚

  4. Dana, I LOVE how you write. I read this earlier, sitting on the edge of my chair, laughing over your liquor store exploits. I used to get carded all the time, into my 40’s, and not even looking suspicious. Then, suddenly, one unexpected day it stopped. Enjoy it while it lasts! I’ll be they’ll card you for years & years to come.

    • Thanks, Kathy! I don’t know what my problem with liquor stores is. It’s not like I can’t legally purchase alcohol now, but an invisible “DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!” sign seems to descend in front of me whenever I cross a liquor store threshold. It is flattering to be ID’d in my 30s, but I still feel ridiculous and juvenile all the same…

  5. I have a sudden craving for vanilla and bourbon…….. I love vanilla in coke….. Bourbon and coke is good…… now I have a craving for bourbon, vanilla and coke all in one drink….. if I pass out face down on the floor, it’s all your fault Dana…. πŸ™‚

    • That would be a mighty cocktail, indeed! If I don’t see a new post from you in the next 24 hours, I’ll know it’s my fault.

      I’ve never drank bourbon before (total newbie when it comes to alcoholic beverages), but I figure I’ll be safe with small doses of homemade vanilla extract! πŸ™‚

  6. Funny, I’m usually so self-conscious about not knowing things, but liquor gets a free pass from me in ignorance land. Go figure!

    Also, I only just learned about vanilla at home in about October and meant to make some as gifts for Christmas but it didn’t pan out. Now I know where to get the beans and will be sure to give it a go. Thanks for the inspiration AND information (I’m also thrilled about Mary’s info above). Try not to get drunk in 6 weeks time.

    • That little shop sounds amazing. Vanilla beans + local honey that you can put into your OWN JAR = heaven to me! πŸ™‚

      If they don’t have enough vanilla beans in town to make a schwack of vanilla, I’d really recommend that Mountain Rose Herbs. Everything they stock is organic or wild-harvested, sustainably sourced and (very important to me) non-irradiated. They sent me a catalogue with my order and I’ve since been pining over tinctures, salves, specialty tea blends, and fresh herbs/spices. Look at me being so intent on spending money lately! πŸ™‚

    • 8 weeks is definitely testing the limits of my patience. I have a hard time marinating things overnight, even– I want them to be ready NOW! Supposedly, you can try using the extract after 2 weeks, but if it’s best to wait 8 weeks, I’ll have to wait 8 weeks. 😦

    • That looks SOOOOOO good! I’ve actually seen it at ye olde grocery store here, so maybe I’ll try that while my moonshine vanilla extract ripens. My last store-bought bottle is running low and definitely won’t last for another 6 weeks. Thanks!

  7. Heh, I used to be so awkward at the liquor store too…I can relate! They don’t card me any more though πŸ˜‰ Can’t wait to hear how your V-extract turns out! Love vanilla. Bourbon whiskey is not bad either.

    • I’ll probably miss being carded when it stops happening, but in the meantime, I’m all “please don’t card me, please don’t card me…” in my mind and then “SURE I can show you my ID!” out loud when I inevitably get asked. πŸ™‚

      I’m really looking forward to trying this extract out. It can’t be terrible, right?

    • Thanks– I’ll be sure to do a follow-up post when the time has come. I thought I was going to post a start-to-finish thing after the full 8 weeks had passed, but after 2 weeks of waiting I was like “Screw it! The world needs to know that vanilla extract can be made at home!”

  8. You’re too cute Dana. πŸ˜†

    Sounds like you had fun. BTW, the process is the same for making tinctures. A bunch of herbs (I use 2-3 teaspoons ground herb for each 5 ounces of alcohol) in vodka, brandy, or other alcohol, about a month to “cook”, and voila, you’ve got “medicine”. πŸ˜‰

    • Cool! What sort of tinctures do you usually make? I used to work in a place that sold all kinds of tinctures and other herbal remedies, but I’ve never actually tried one of them myself! Ooohh– do you make yourself bitters? If so, which herbs do you use? (Been meaning to try some bitters but haven’t picked up my lazy butt long enough to pick some up at the store…)

      • I haven’t done any bitters yet, haven’t really had the need. But as far as tinctures, I’ve done a number … a decongestant, an antihistamine, one to help get to sleep, a couple to balance hormones, one to settle an irritated tummy, one for headaches, one to boost the immune system, one for liver detox, and one to stop coughs. Between making teas and the tinctures we don’t have much need for most lab created meds which is pretty cool. πŸ™‚

          • At the risk of sounding looney … most of it “just comes to me”. I do have a lot of reference books here at home though, and I usually double check my instincts on what to use just to be safe.

            • Not looney at all! It sounds like you have an incredible, intuitive gift when it comes to healing yourself and your loved ones. Imagine how different the world would look if we could all use a more ‘natural’ approach to health and healing instead of running to an MD for a prescription! πŸ™‚

    • Just doing my part, you know. We can’t ALL be awkward all the time, so I took one for the team at the liquor store. πŸ˜‰

      I can’t wait for this extract to be ready. It could be life changing for me, as pathetic as it sounds. I love making things at home, I love mason jars, and I love vanilla– could this recipe be heaven??

  9. Well, should you decide you don’t want to continue using the bourbon to make vanilla extract, I would gladly take that bottle off your hands. Bourbon is one of my favorite spirits. πŸ˜€ And because it’s one of my favorites, I may give this recipe a try (if I can convince myself that it’s okay to use a cup of bourbon for vanilla extract).

    Can’t wait to hear how this turned out. (You may have already posted about it. I’m playing catch-up today.)

    • Too late with the rest of the bourbon, Robin. Just this morning, I sliced up another dozen vanilla beans and plopped them right into what was left of the Jim Beam. πŸ™‚ I figured that the recipe would work out well enough to use the whole bottle. Once everything steeps and matures, I’ll be set for vanilla for a good long time. Huzzah!!

  10. I actually knew this, but only because I watch an unhealthy amount of Food network television. Michael Smith has shown me a few times how to make vanilla. I haven’t done it, but I don’t bake or use vanilla that often. And by the way, this is the second post this week of my blog buddies associated with bourbon!

    • Seriously? What are the odds of two bourbon posts in one week??

      I use vanilla ALL THE TIME, so knowing that I could make it myself was golden. I know you don’t really like oatmeal, but that’s a huge vanilla-sucker for me.

    • That sounds SO GOOD! I’m totally going to try using vodka next time around. Until then, I’ve got 750mL of bourbon-based vanilla waiting for me at the beginning of March. πŸ™‚

  11. I would have expected little Jack-and-the-beanstalk kind of beans to fall out of the pod, too. Thanks for correcting my ignorance before I had a chance to expose it.

    Bourbon is my drink of choice (in a diet Coke with a wedge of lime) so I’m halfway there – sweet!

    • Who knew that vanilla beans weren’t round and pearl-like? Food. So amazing.

      I’ve decided if the vanilla extract is gross, I’m going to ship it to all my bourbon-loving friends. They make vanilla-flavoured vodka, so why not DIY vanilla bourbon, too? πŸ˜‰ Thanks for reading!

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