I’ve been making my own vanilla extract for years at home. It’s a critical ingredient in many of my baking recipes, so I go through a lot of the stuff. So much, in fact, that when I discovered how to make vanilla extract myself for a fraction of the cost of store-bought, I jumped right on the bandwagon and never looked back.
Today I’m going to show you how simple and cost effective it is to make your own vanilla extract, using a sous vide bath or a steam oven.
Why sous vide vanilla? Well, the big drawback to homemade vanilla has always been the length of time between making your extract and using it. When you infuse vanilla beans in alcohol at room temperature, it takes up to 12 months before it’s concentrated enough to use. Sous vide vanilla is ready in under a month. I don’t know about you, but patience is not my strength when it comes to food, so this method suits me perfectly!
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Why make homemade vanilla extract?
Vanilla is expensive stuff. While it’s not exactly cheap to make your own extract, you control how much vanilla goes into it, and thus the strength and cost. If you make a ‘single fold’ vanilla as per my quantities below, on a cost-to-quality ratio it’s guaranteed to be better than store bought vanilla. Better vanilla equals better baked goods!
The pricey little bottles of extract at your grocery store often lack the depth of flavor they need to really boost your baking. Most manufacturers use the bare minimum amount of vanilla they can, so what you’re paying for is convenient but weak in aroma and flavor.
TL;DR? Homemade vanilla extract is cheaper AND better than store bought.
Ready to make your own vanilla extract? Here are some of my favorite ways to use it!
What do you need to make vanilla extract?
You literally need two ingredients to make homemade vanilla extract. Vanilla beans and vodka.
You can complicate this by switching up the vodka for other types of alcohol. Rum, brandy and bourbon are common substitutes and they do lend complementary flavours and aromas to your finished extract. I like the purity of the vanilla to shine, so I usually stick with vodka, which is tasteless in the finished product.
The best vodka for making vanilla extract
Vodka is the mainstay alcohol for vanilla extract. You don’t need an expensive one, but you shouldn’t buy the cheapest either.
I find very cheap vodka lends a harshness to the extract that never really goes away, so I go for a mid-range vodka like Smirnoff or Absolut. I spend a lot on vanilla beans and I don’t want to waste them by cheaping out on the alcohol component of my vanilla extract recipe!
If you want to use a premium vodka (say, Grey Goose), you could. I haven’t tried it and I’m not sure I can quite come at that expense when the mid range brands work really well. But you do you; I’m sure premium vodka will result in a lovely vanilla extract!
I recommend you steer clear of flavored vodkas because they’ll mask or alter the beautiful flavor of the vanilla you’re infusing into them.
Can you make vanilla extract with rum?
In short, yes. I’ve tried vanilla extracts made with rum, brandy and bourbon as the base alcohol, and all of them have their special flavor profiles. I know people who enjoy using these ‘pimped up’ vanilla extracts in coffee or in cocktails, which is a great use for them.
If you do want to use rum to make vanilla extract (or any other spirit), choose one with a flavor you enjoy. As with vodka, too cheap will be harshly alcoholic and too high-end is really a bit of a waste.
For this method of vanilla extract you will need a sous vide immersion device or a steam oven. These appliances allow you to heat and hold your extract at a specific temperature over several days, speeding up the extraction process and allowing you to use it much faster.
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Vanilla beans for vanilla extract
The good news is that you don’t need premium A-grade beans to make vanilla extract. Shorter or mixed-length vanilla beans are just fine and frequently cheaper, so look around for those.
I belong to a vanilla bean co-op group on Facebook, and buy most of my beans through them. If you want to make a decent quantity of extract and you’re willing to wait on beans, it’s a good way to go. Essentially, the co-op admins arrange sourcing of the beans and open a pre-orders form. Everyone orders, then the co-op orders a bulk shipment which makes it less expensive for everyone than buying at retail prices. It also lets me try many different varieties, which means I have different kinds of extract to choose from!
The ratio of beans to alcohol is up to you. A single fold vanilla, similar to the strength of many mass produced ones, is made with 1oz/30g beans to 1 cup/250ml alcohol.
Why am I using weight instead of number of beans? It’s because the number of beans can vary significantly in weight depending on size, variety, age and storage. Ten plump vanilla beans might weigh an ounce, but so might two dozen dehydrated old beans. Weight is far more consistent and reliable a measure in this case.
If you want your extract to be stronger, just use more beans. Note that more beans doesn’t mean faster extraction, it just means a more concentrated flavor.
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How to make your own vanilla extract
This is a pretty simple process – the hardest bit is waiting to use your extract! Here’s how we do it.
Firstly, preheat your water bath or your steam oven. We’re going to heat to 135°F/57°C. This is hot enough to kick start extraction of the vanilla but not hot enough for the alcohol to evaporate.
Now it’s time to deal with the vanilla. Grab your beans and put them into your jars or bottles. If they’re too long for the jars, like mine were, you can cut them in half.
Pour your alcohol over the beans and put the lids on the jars.
Pop the jars into your water bath or steam oven, and let them warm and extract for 72-96 hours. Yep, that’s quite a while, but remember it’s far less than room-temperature extraction in the back of your pantry!
At the end of the cooking time, remove the jars and let them cool. Store in a cool dark place for a few weeks until the extract is ready to use. You’ll know it’s good to go when a few drops in a tablespoon of milk taste smooth and rich but without an alcoholic ‘burn’.
The finished vanilla will keep indefinitely if you store it somewhere cool, dark and dry. Leave the beans in the extract as it preserves them; you can take a bean out and squeeze out the caviar if you need it for a recipe.
When your vanilla is used up, either cover the beans with new alcohol (it won’t make a strong extract but you’ll have a lovely infused vodka and long term storage for the beans), or dry them out in a warm place and grind them into vanilla powder. No vanilla goes to waste!
I really hope you’ll try making your own vanilla extract at home. It’s so satisfying. And if you can bear to part with your liquid gold, it makes a very special gift for a baker in your life.
Have you made and enjoyed this recipe? I’d love if you’d be kind enough to rate and review it via the stars in the recipe card, or leave a comment below! Ratings and reviews help other readers to find and know whether one of my recipes will suit them.
Sous Vide Vanilla Extract
- 2 oz vanilla beans whole beans
- 2 cups vodka or another alcohol of choice; rum and bourbon are common substitutes
- Preheat your steam oven (or a sous vide circulator in water bath) to 135°F/57°C. If you're using a steam oven, use the sous vide setting if your oven has one, or the steam setting if not.
- Put the vanilla beans and vodka into a wide mouth or mason jar and close the lid to fingertip tightness (screw the lid on to the point where you've tightened it with your fingers, but don't twist it on as hard as possible, or you run the risk of the glass cracking during the heating and cooling process).2 oz vanilla beans, 2 cups vodka
- Put the jar into your steam oven or water bath and set the timer for 96 hours/4 days. Yes, that's a long time! If you're using an unplumbed (water tank) steam oven, you will need to periodically fill up the water tank during this time, probably about twice a day.
- At the end of the cooking time, cool the vanilla extract to room temperature and store in a dark place in the pantry.
- The extract is ready to use when it's a dark, deep brown color and the alcohol smell has mellowed, anywhere from 1-3 months. If you want to do a taste test, put a couple of drops of extract into a tablespoon of milk. If it's ready to use you'll get a lovely deep vanilla taste without an alcohol 'burn' on your palate.
- The finished vanilla will keep indefinitely if you store it somewhere cool, dark and dry. Leave the beans in the extract as it preserves them; you can take a bean out and squeeze out the caviar if you need it for a recipe.
- When your vanilla is used up, either cover the beans with new alcohol (it won’t make a strong extract but you’ll have a lovely infused vodka and long term storage for the beans), or dry them out in a warm place and grind them into vanilla powder. No vanilla goes to waste!