Why so many ways to make vanilla extract?
Growing Vanilla Beans is a labor-intensive crop with Mexico and Hawaii being pollinated by the stinger-less Melipona bee. The only bee known to be capable of pollinating the orchid flowers which only bloom ONE morning per year. Other regions growing vanilla beans have to be hand pollinated whereas there are no Melipona bees for this task.
Orchids that produce vanilla beans are grown only 10-20 degrees north and south of the Equator. Depending on the area, soil (such as volcanic), moisture (rain), temperature and surrounding crops such as flowers or fruits. These factors will determine the flavor of the vanilla beans, from bold & smokey to sweet & fruity and many more flavor combinations.
So many, for example found in blogs and on Pinterest, offer their opinion of how to make vanilla extract. I’ve decided to research methods explained by vanilla bean importers on how to make a vanilla extract following FDA standards. FDA sets how many ounces of vanilla beans to how many ounces of alcohol and the strength of the alcohol, to be vanilla. What the FDA doesn’t require is if a company would add sweetener, artificial color and flavor, these don’t have to be listed on their ingredients label. It can be rather deceiving. So, if you’ve read to add a few (like 3) vanilla beans to a jar/bottle and cover with alcohol (no weight of beans to ounces of alcohol to follow) & read in 1 month or 3 months, you’ll have vanilla. You may be disappointed as you’ll have is colored alcohol, with more alcohol taste and smell than vanilla. Some will tell you to tie beans in a knot, or leave whole, so you can use the seeds inside after your extract is finished. Some suggest re-using the same beans just topping off the jar with more alcohol, indefinitely, maybe adding a fresh vanilla bean every now and then. They’ve had their jar of vanilla going for years. But this method certainly can’t be following the FDA standards. But may be just fine for what they want for a vanilla. Vanilla beans will eventually be “used up” and even begin to degrade.
So, let’s start from the beginning. First step is to choose vanilla beans. They are as diverse in flavor as they are in price. There are on average of 6-8 vanilla beans per ounce. Grade A, or Gourmet vanilla beans are longer, plumper, more oil and full of seeds, so they may only be 1-3 beans per ounce and also higher priced. Grade B are shorter, thinner, drier, less seeds and cheaper priced and could take 15+ beans per ounce. There is also a grade C, these are even smaller than a B, and will take even more to equal what you will need by weight. You can see in this photo the big difference in grade A( larger on the left) and B vanilla beans.
I prefer the very best I can obtain, to get the best vanilla possible. I’m sure some will disagree, but I’ve put my research to the test. I’ve conducted many experiments comparing vanilla beans, spirits, processing methods, steeping time, and compared the end results with people tasting the vanilla extracts, so it’s not just my opinion. I’ll be blogging over time about each test, methods, results including photos. Yes, this is time consuming and expensive. But they say the proof is in the pudding.
I’m sure you’ve also heard you get what you pay for. This could mean a weaker vanilla, maybe a metallic or medicinal after taste, or still too much of the alcohol in the flavor. You don’t want this to ruin your recipe. You could also be getting artificial color and flavor additives, even a sweetener. If you’re taking a family favorite recipe, perhaps your prized recipe, your famous for making, you’ll buy beetter ingredients, not skimping, maybe organic and not generic ingredients. With food prices climbing as everything else is, don’t take a chance of ruining the recipe with a metallic taste do to a poor-quality vanilla. Back to our choices, you’ve picked your vanilla beans (or at least what you can find and choose to afford), and you’ve chosen grade A or B (often referred to as an extract grade). What’s next?
I choose canning jars. They come in a variety of sizes, uniform so I can stack a jar on top if needed, and they seal – leak proof. Some like unique bottles, even using the alcohol bottle. It’s whatever you prefer.
And then it’s your alcohol. The most common is Vodka, it’s colorless and tasteless, so you get the taste of the vanilla. Maybe you like Rum as this gives you a very sweet taste and full vanilla taste also. Then there is Bourbon, you’ll get a vanilla taste with specific smokey notes in your extract. Then you can also choose Brandy, Cognac, Tequila, or Everclear. Each will add to the vanilla with their own flavor notes of that alcohol. And yes, I match my vanilla beans to the alcohols and I make extracts with each vanilla bean variety in more than one alcohol. I’d like to mention Bourbon takes longer to become vanilla, whereas your average batch takes 12 months, Bourbon takes 18 months to steep into vanilla. How do you decide among dozens of alcohol brands and as I’ve discovered so far – 29 varieties of vanilla beans (at least what I’ve been able to obtain so far), which do you choose? There are differences in chocolate, coffee, a fine wine vs a cheap wine. The same with all alcohols. It doesn’t matter to you then a bottom shelf brand to save you money is maybe your choice. Or a brand you happen to like the flavor of in your drink. If you’re like me, I want the very best for my customers. I’ve invested in vanilla beans and some are priced around $50-$60 per ounce. I certainly don’t want to skimp on the alcohol. I have been running experiments with low end, mid-range and top shelf alcohols to find what produces the best vanillas. It’s not necessary to buy the most expensive of that alcohol. Another tip, don’t buy alcohol with flavors, not even a vanilla flavor, as these are all artificial flavors and will leave that bad taste instead of the wonderful vanilla you want.
Next step, we’ve picked a vanilla bean, a jar, our alcohol and next is prepping the vanilla beans. The best way to get the full flavor is to not worry about using the beans after your extract. We focus on one project at a time. By using one or a combination of these methods you’ll maximize your vanilla. Weigh your beans rather than going by number of beans. Weighting is more accurate as beans are so different, length, plump or thin, oily or dry.
We slice our beans lengthwise to expose the tiny seeds (these are called caviar). We also cut off both ends and place everything into the jar. Sometimes I’ll cut them in half or smaller to fit the jar and make sure the liquid will cover the beans. Some will tie the beans whole or just add them whole. This will work, but not as effective. And finally, it’s time to shake and wait. Store your jar of steeping vanilla in a cool dark place. Away from the heat of a furnace vent, kitchen stove and sunny window. Start off shaking your jar daily for the first two weeks. Then you can shake 2 or 3 times a week for the duration of time, around 12 months or 18 months with bourbon alcohol. Patience is a virtue, and with vanilla, it’s golden. So, you’ve done it, a year of waiting has finally come. You can test your vanilla with whole milk or cream about 2 TBLS and a teaspoon of vanilla Stir together, wait (what again?!), only a couple minutes. Now taste and you now have a real appreciation of the magic of vanilla. Here you can bottle in smaller bottles and give as gifts. Be proud and share your journey with your gift.
I love cooking, baking, and trying new things just to know I can make something. So, I challenged myself to make vanilla just to learn how, that was about 5 years ago. As I researched and learned the difference between well intention people sharing their idea of making vanilla and then those who are really experienced in all thing’s vanilla. So, I found 8 varieties (countries) of vanilla beans at that time.
And I gifted bottles to my daughters and some close friends. They loved them and suggested I go into business. Well 5 years later, and thousands of dollars invested, I now buy 29 different vanilla beans and have made vanilla with 9 different alcohols. I’ve processed over 30 gallons of vanilla and currently have 109 jars steeping (quarts and half gallon jars). I also jumped into making flavorings from fruits, nuts spices and have about as much of these as I do vanillas and these are a whole different process, which I’ll be sharing about in a future blog. For now, I have 79 flavorings and several new ideas to start. This is a LOT of extracts. I also make vanilla bean powder and vanilla bean paste as well as double and triple fold (strength) vanillas.
This has been my wonderful long dedicated and expensive journey into making extracts. I hope you enjoyed the trip down my memory lane. Watch for new varieties of vanilla extract and flavorings as they come ready to be bottled for sale. Enjoy reading about the difference in vanilla extracts, and the ideas to use these extracts and flavorings in your cooking, baking, grilling, drinks. Please, share your tips, your recipes and a photo of your finished recipe. And for those who don’t wish to invest in vanilla beans and don’t have the patience to wait a year. Shop through my vanilla extracts, you’ll find a little something that you feel is just right for your recipe. GourmetVanillaSpice.com