Wednesday, May 12, 2010

vanilla extract

If there's one piece of advice I'm hearing a lot lately, it's this:

You can't make everyone happy. Don't even try.

I beg to differ.

In politics? Absolutely. If I had a formula for universal happiness in that arena, I'd be president. And as I am a fairly compulsive "make everyone happy-er", this is going to be a real challenge. It's okay. The girls have started to train me on that one.

But in flavor? There's always vanilla.

What is that flavor, really? I guess it's a sweet thing, but I don't think that sweet is inherent in its true self. It's just... vanilla.

Amateur that I am, I have only recently come around to vanilla beans. The price always put me off, and so when a recipe called for vanilla beans, I always used the extract option that they put in there just to be nice, you know, for the people who don't do the vanilla bean thing.

I had nothing against them- it's just that sometimes it's hard to do something new, even if you are adventurous by nature. When Joey and I got married, we swore that we would switch sides of the bed every few weeks, just so that we wouldn't get too set in our ways. We got distracted by babies and life, and we forgot. After a few years, we switched sides. We couldn't sleep at all. So young, and so set in our ways. Tragic.
And so, with vanilla beans, I decided to cross over and switch it up. I hesitate to call myself a foodie, but it seemed that I couldn't even look over at the popular crowd until I became acquainted with vanilla beans and kosher salt. There was still the money issue, but then I discovered the secret. I'm sure that you all know this, but vanilla beans are best bought online, and in bulk. I buy mine here, but there are a lot of good sources out there.
Once you've got a nice little bag of vanilla beans in your pantry, the world opens up a bit. Vanilla ice cream becomes flecked with little black lovely bits, pudding reaches a high point, poached fruit becomes food for royalty. If you are at all like me in your secret thrill at little fancy things, it's an ingredient I would recommend.
Usually, a recipe instructs is to cut the bean lengthwise, and to scrape the sticky paste of seeds into our milk or cream or what have you. Sometimes the bean gets thrown in as well. But then, the recipe always says this: "remove bean, and discard or save for future use." Future use! Shall I recycle it as a bracelet? Or a Christmas ornament? What recipe calls for a prescraped and withered vanilla bean?
Actually, this one does.

Vanilla beans, powerful and lovely as they are, have quite a bit of strength in them. Soaked in alcohol for a while, they are, as you would imagine, very good at creating vanilla extract.

So here is how it works. Fill a jar or little glass bottle with vodka. It can be the cheap stuff. Put it on your shelf, preferably not in direct sun. As you go through your vanilla bean stash, rinse the spent bean after use and throw it in the jar of vodka. Keep shoving them in there. Let it sit around for awhile. When the liquid is amber colored and tastes like vanilla, it's ready to use.

Happiness for all, in a jar.


  1. Excellent post! Homemade vanilla extract is the best way to obtain rich, smooth, deep vanilla flavor without any additives or sweeteners. A great source for very high quality and inexpensive vanilla beans is Beanilla. I found 8 different types of vanilla beans at and they also sell a few of their products at a store here in Michigan.

  2. Oh! I am so glad you came around. There is nothing better - NOTHING! - than fresh strawberry ice cream flecked with little black speckles of magic. The whole thing tastes like June, and there is no substitute for the vanilla. I had been buying mine extremely inexpensively at Costco until they were discontinued - I'll have to find them online now.

    Try leaving the scraped, leftover pods in a jar of sugar. That way, there's no waste, and you end up with the most wonderful tasting sugar there is.

  3. That is happiness in a jar! Makes me happy looking at it, knowing the beautiful scent brewing inside. I usually put my vanilla beans in sugar but maybe this is a smarter use of them. Well done!

  4. "we swore that we would switch sides of the bed every few weeks […] and we forgot. After a few years, we switched sides. We couldn't sleep at all."

    For a variety of reasons, I love this story. Thank you.

  5. You know..I have a jar of homemade vanilla extract in which I used brandy and LOADS of vanilla beans, split (I buy mine on cheap for so many beans!) and it's been sitting for a year, so no doubt it should be perfect. However, since it smells more of alcohol than vanilla, unlike my Nielsen-Massey extract, I really haven't used it that much. Maybe I should have used vodka? Yours looks terrific!

  6. Lisa, I know some people use brandy, but vodka seems to make more sense to me as a flavor carrier. What kind of beans are you using?