Homemade Vanilla Extract – Better & Cheaper Than Store-Bought (FAK Friday)

Homemade Vanilla Extract (cheaper than store-bought, and easy to make!)

Who doesn’t love vanilla extract? If you’ve ever done any baking, you know it finds its way into nearly every recipe. Even if it’s just a little, a bit of vanilla can add that extra something to make a dessert special. Even chocolate can be enhanced by a few drops of the stuff!

It’s no surprise, then, that I go through vanilla like there’s no tomorrow. It can be expensive to keep stocked up on the good stuff, though, so instead I’ve been trying to keep a supply going of my own. Not only is it cheaper, but the flavor is worlds apart from your average extract.

Making your own vanilla extract is one of the easiest things you can do, and it can save you loads of money verses the stuff sold in stores. I estimated that a quart of my homemade extract cost me around 30 bucks to make (that’s about $7.50 per 8oz bottle, as compared to the $10-20 you might expect to pay at the store). And that includes the fancy little jars and labels — to make things even cheaper, you can skip the bottles and just store your extract in mason jars, or old (clean) wine bottles.

Plus, homemade extract is great for gifting. If you start a batch at the beginning of the year, by December you’ve got gourmet stocking stuffers that are sure to impress. Talk about a no-brainer!

Homemade Vanilla Extract (cheaper than store-bought, and easy to make!)

Now, there are a lot of tutorials and DIY’s out there on this subject already… but to be honest with you, most of the ones I’ve seen give some pretty spotty (and often mis-informed) instructions. Don’t get me wrong, making your own vanilla extract is easy (exceedingly so!), but the results are only going to be their best if we know a bit about what we’re doing first.

Don’t be deterred by the lengthiness of this post — it may seem overwhelming at first, but making homemade vanilla extract really is easy. All you need are vanilla beans, vodka (or other liquor), and a little bit of know-how…

Vanilla Beans (DIY Vanilla Extract)

First, let’s talk beans — vanilla beans come in many different varieties (the most common ones are Madagascar or Bourbon, but there are also Mexican, Tahitian, Indonesian, Tonga, and more), and each one has it’s own unique flavor. Kind of like different types of chocolate, some are darker, or earthier, or more floral than others. If you aren’t sure where to begin, I suggest getting a sampler of beans from a site like Beanilla.com or Ebay, and try them out to see what you think. In most of my baking, I like to use Madagascar or Mexican (they are cheaper, and have a richer, bolder flavor). In more delicate recipes, like vanilla ice cream, fresh whipped cream, or white cake, I prefer the light, floral taste of Tahitian vanilla (this is my personal preference, and yours may be different). Once you have a feel for the different varieties, you can even try experimenting with using a mix of beans to achieve a unique flavor profile. This is your extract, after all, and you should make it how you like!

Besides coming in different varieties, vanilla beans also come in different grades. Grade A vanilla beans (also called “gourmet”) are what you are most likely to find in little jars in the spice aisle. They are big, plump, and great for splitting open and adding directly to a recipe. Then there are Grade B vanilla beans — these are smaller, and much dryer than Grade A beans. They are also referred to as “extract grade”, because the lower water content makes them ideal for flavor extraction. (The average Grade A bean contains about 30-35% moisture, while Grade B’s are between 15-25%.) And, because they are typically sold by weight, you’ll find you can get a lot more grade B beans for your buck. Score!

You can order Grade B beans from some spice shops, Ebay, or Beanilla.com — I use Beanilla for most of my orders, since they usually have a good price and I know them to be reliable. (Not being paid to say that, just my honest opinion.) They usually have Grade B Madagascar and Mexican beans, but for other Grade B beans, you may have to look on Ebay or elsewhere.

Once you’ve got your beans, the next thing you’ll need is some alcohol.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (better than store-bought, and easy to make!)

Homemade extracts are typically made with vodka, because it has a neutral taste, but you could also use bourbon, brandy, rum, or other liquor to bring a bit more flavor to the party. This is entirely up to you. In general, I prefer to make my extracts with vodka, because I can always add other flavors to a recipe if I want to.

According to the FDA, commercial grade vanilla extract need to be at least 35% alcohol content (or 70 proof). Your average bottle of vodka is 40% (or 80 proof), and for extracting at home that will do just fine. Keep in mind there will be some moisture in the vanilla beans that will dilute the percentage slightly. If you really want to be precise, you can dilute your 80 proof vodka by adding 1 TBSP of distilled water per 2 cups of vodka — this will bring your alcohol content to right around 37%, which still leaves a little room for the water content of the beans.

(Another, even cheaper option is to buy a bottle of 95% (190 proof) alcohol, such as Everclear, and dilute with distilled water (about 1 3/4 cup water to 1 cup Everclear) to make about 35% alcohol.)

Now, you may be thinking, isn’t a higher alcohol content better? Well, the answer is actually, no. Vanilla beans contain hundreds of flavor compounds, some of which are water soluble, and others alcohol soluble. The primary flavor we taste is a chemical called vanillin, which is mostly water soluble. If the alcohol content is too high, it will actually dilute the vanillin flavor and make your extract weaker, rather than stronger.

When it comes to choosing an alcohol, there’s a bit of debate over how much the quality matters. I’ve heard both sides of the argument — some say better quality vodka produces better extract, while others claim it makes no difference at all, and you shouldn’t waste your money. Personally, I go for a cheaper vodka, and all I can say is that the extract I make at home outshines all the others I’ve tried. One of these days I’ll make a couple batches with different alcohols to see if I can tell the difference, but until then I’m happy to save my pennies.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (better than store-bought, and easy to make!)

Okay, you’ve got your beans, you’ve got your alcohol… now it’s time to combine them. This is the part where I find the most incongruity among other how-to sites. A quick search turns up over a dozen results, with instructions ranging from a few vanilla beans in a gallon of vodka, to 3-4 in a cup. Surprisingly, neither of these are anywhere close to the required amount necessary to make an extract.

In order to be called an extract, the FDA states that it must contain a minimum of 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans per gallon. That works out to just shy of 1 oz. of beans per 8 oz. of vodka. If you’re using the smaller, extract-grade vanilla beans, that can mean anywhere from 8-16 beans per cup of alcohol! If you’re using plumper, Grade A vanilla beans, you will actually have to use more, not less, because of their extra water content. (Remember that commercial extracts are made with beans that have no more than 25% moisture.) Anything less, and you won’t have an extract, you’ll just have vanilla flavored vodka.

When you’re making vanilla extract, it’s always better to err on the side of too much vanilla, rather than too little. I suggest using at least 8-10 beans per 8 oz. of vodka, if not more. Keep in mind that vanilla extract comes in many strengths (single fold, double fold, triple fold), and the worst that can happen is you wind up with something a little more powerful than you expected. If your vanilla extract gets stronger than what you’re used to, simply use a little less in your recipes, or top off the jar with a bit more vodka every once and a while. Your extract will last longer, and you’ll still be saving money as compared to using fewer beans.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (cheaper than store-bought, and easy to make!)

The other component necessary to making vanilla extract is time. How long should you let your extract sit before it can be used? As with the number of beans, the answer you get will vary depending on who you ask. In my experience, the extract can be used after just a few months of macerating. However, things start to get good after 6 months, and it will continue to mature well after that. (As it ages, you may even notice it becoming slightly syrupy — this is is when things start to get really good!)

After anywhere between 6-12 months, I strain my vanilla to remove the beans and seeds. This step is optional, but makes for a nicer presentation if you plan to give your extract as a gift. Whatever you do, don’t get rid of the used vanilla bean pods! When dividing my extract into jars, I like to add 1-2 to each, so that the flavor can continue to mature. Any extra beans can be dried and added to a bin of granulated sugar, which will soak up whatever flavor they have left.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (better than store-bought, and easy to make!)

Now, there are just a couple more things to consider before we begin. I couldn’t resist using clear bottles for these photos, but just like with most other alcohol-based things, vanilla extract is best stored in dark glass bottles and kept in a cool dark place to keep the flavor strong. Brown or green wine bottles work well, or, if you’re wanting to make smaller portions to give as gifts, you can find bottles in all different sizes online. I ordered mine from eBottles.com.

While it isn’t always necessary, I recommend sterilizing your bottles or jars before using them. This can be done by boiling them in a stock-pot of water for a few minutes, then carefully removing them to a clean towel to dry. This way you won’t have to worry about any off-flavors developing over time.

(For those of you interested, I used Avery printable labels for my bottles — of all the sticker labels I’ve used, these seem to be the best, both for printing and adhering. I’ve uploaded each of my vanilla label designs onto my flickr page (here), so they can be easily downloaded, then uploaded onto whatever template you want to use.)

Let’s get started, shall we?

Homemade Vanilla Extract (better than store-bought, and easy to make!)

Homemade Vanilla Extract

To make one cup of vanilla extract, you will need…

1 cup of vodka or other liquor (between 35-40% alcohol)
At least 1 oz. of Grade B vanilla beans (there can be anywhere from 8-16 beans per oz, depending on their size and moisture content. I suggest using a minimum of 8-10 beans per cup of vodka, if not more)
Clean and dry bottles or jars (preferably brown or green glass, with tight fitting lids)

1.   Split your vanilla beans in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds (also called the “caviar”), using the back of your knife. (See the photo above.) Removing the seeds is optional, but will give you a stronger extract in a shorter period of time. If time isn’t an issue, just split your beans lengthwise, and then cut them in half across the width so that they fit easily into the bottle or jar you are using.
2.   Place all of your cut vanilla beans, along with the seeds (or caviar), into a clean jar. Pour the vodka on top, seal the jar, and give it a good shake. I suggest putting a label on your jars with the date the extract was started, this way you can keep track of how old it is.
3.   Store your vanilla extract in a cool, dark place, and give it a shake every now and then. I keep mine in the stairway to my basement, and try to shake it up whenever I walk past… or whenever I remember to. It’s not a biggie if it goes unshaken for a while.
4.   Let your extract mature for at least a few months before using. At this point it will still have a strong alcohol flavor to it, but will work fine in most recipes. The flavor will deepen and mellow the longer your extract ages. After 6 months or so, you can strain your extract if you wish (I like to use a double layer of cheesecloth, rubberbanded to the top of the jar). Don’t discard the bean pods, though! I like to add a few beans back to the jar after straining, so the extract continues to develop flavor. The rest can be set out on a paper towel to dry, then added to a bin of sugar to make vanilla sugar.

Remember to continue to store your vanilla in a cool, dark place (such as your basement, pantry, or fridge). The longer it sits, the more the flavors will mature, like a good wine. The best extract I ever made was a jar I forgot about for a little over a year. If, over time, your extract becomes stronger than you like, just top off the jar with a bit more vodka.

Now… who wants some extract?

Homemade Vanilla Extract (cheaper than store-bought, and easy to make!)
Homemade Vanilla Extract (cheaper than store-bought, and easy to make!)

42 thoughts on “Homemade Vanilla Extract – Better & Cheaper Than Store-Bought (FAK Friday)

  1. Mrs. Witmer

    Epic post! I definitely want to make these so that next Christmas, I’ll have gifts for everyone. Thanks for sifting through all the information and making a reliable one!

    Reply
  2. shannon weber

    you know, my jury is still out on homemade vanilla, because – like probably most “should i make it or buy it” things, i’ve heard pros and cons on it. i’m trying to think of the article i read just recently about how storebought vanilla is way better than homemade, and not to bother, but it’s interesting to read the different points of view on it! I have in my possession both homemade and storebought versions, so i’m still trying to decide which is my own personal winner. I agree that it’s a fabulous gift to give to someone, especially if they go through vanilla like we both do. :) a great hostess or holiday favor, especially. as always, love the FAK posts! :)

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      I’m surprised to hear you don’t see much of a difference. How was your homemade extract made? Were there enough beans, and was it aged properly? Most store-bought vanilla are aged between 3-12 months before being filtered and put on the shelf, but it’s only the really good ones that are aged longer. The rest often have glycerin or sugar added to them to mellow the bite of the alcohol, since they haven’t had the time necessary to create a deeper flavor of their own. The thing with homemade extract is, it can be aged for as long as you want, and it just gets better and better. Patience is key — after 6 months, my extract is on par with the high-end stuff I normally buy from Penzey’s spice house. After 12-15 months, it’s so strong and syrupy I just want to wear it like perfume. Definitely worth the wait, in my opinion!

      Reply
  3. Shauna Malone

    Very detailed posting, I appreciate that. I never really thought of making my own vanilla extract, but as I continued to read this post I became excited about all the variations I could make. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  4. frugalfeeding

    Hey Willow! Sorry I couldn’t guest post for you that time – I’ve been super busy in the past 6 months! I’ve also been neglecting your wonderful food and photography. Seriously, this looks and sounds divine!

    Reply
  5. AHAviews

    I’ve always preferred real vanilla, and following my grandmother’s habit have kept a pod in a jar of sugar for vanilla sugar, but this seems an excellent way to have the best stuff around – too late for this christmas, but a head start on NEXT year’s gifts… great post. Thanks.

    Reply
  6. Melinda Parris

    I’m so excited! I used to go to Mexico to buy Mexican vanilla, and I had no idea that it’s probably the beans used rather than the fact it’s made in Mexico, that give the flavor I prefer. I can hardly wait to try this although I’m concerned that Arizona heat may not allow adequate “cool, dry” storage space…
    One question, are corked bottles as acceptable as a screwtop, or what’s the recommended type of bottle top?

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      Yay! I love Mexican vanilla beans, too. You have to be careful buying vanilla in Mexico, though — some of the stuff there is actually made with something called a Tonka bean, which tastes just like vanilla (and is much cheaper than vanilla), but contains a chemical called coumarin, which has been shown to cause liver damage. Tonka is banned in the US, but not in Mexico, so just be sure to read the label and make sure it says “no coumarin” on it.

      As for the bottles – screw-tops are definitely going to be best to keep your extract air-tight, but if you have good, tight fitting corks they’ll work just fine, too. If the corks are at all loose, though, go with screw tops. Also, if you’re worried about the temperature, you could keep the extract in the fridge. Refrigeration isn’t necessary, but if it’s hot all the time it would probably be better cold.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  7. mommyto5

    Is there any way that there’s still time to make this and use it as this year’s Christmas present or totally too late? If you opt to keep the beans in when using the vanilla do the beans have to stay covered at all times?

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      Hey there -

      I think it’s a little late for x-mas this year, but that’s just me. Some people say homemade extract is ready to use after just a couple of months, but I find it’s still pretty harsh (from the alcohol) at that point. You could always try making a batch and testing it out to see if it’s ready — if not, you can save it for next year!

      As for keeping the beans covered, it is best if they are covered as much as possible. Uncovered beans will start to dry out after a while. If you start using the extract and the beans become uncovered, you can try topping the jar off with a bit more vodka. Or, you can cut the beans into smaller pieces, this way they don’t come up very far in the jar. After 6-12 months of aging, I typically remove the beans so I don’t have to worry about them.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      I ordered my bottles online from a site called eBottles.com — you can choose clear or tinted glass, and they come in a variety of sizes (I chose 4 and 8 oz bottles). You can order them with corks or screw tops (screw tops are more secure, but corks are prettier. If you’re giving them as wedding favors, you may want to secure the corks with some decorative tape or something). Hope that helps!

      Reply
  8. Anonymous

    Hello! My vanilla is currently “maturing” and I want to go ahead and make labels. I bought 2 oz. boston rounds, and am wondering what exact size of avery labels you used. I don’t want to buy some, and then have your cute fonts be too big or too small for the label. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      Hey there! I used Avery’s 2 1/2 inch round labels, in the color “kraft brown”. The bottles I used were 4oz. and 8oz., though, and I would be concerned that the 2 1/2 inch labels might be too big to fit on 2oz. bottles. I would just go ahead and pick whatever label you think will fit your bottles nicely. Once you’ve downloaded the Avery template, you can just insert the jpg image of the vanilla label you want, and then resize it to fit. (The template should open like a word document – go to insert picture, select the image, and it will appear over the template – drag the corners of the image to resize until it fits where you want it.) I intentionally left the jpg’s large so they could be used on whatever template you like. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  9. red-wine-diva.com

    There are definitely lots of recipes/processes on the web to choose between when making your own vanilla. I read through a few of them and now have mine macerating. Before reading your blog, I thought it only took 6-8 weeks for maceration and had planned on giving it for Christmas presents this year – now I’m not so sure.

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      There are a lot of different opinions on how long the vanilla needs to mature before it’s good. I would test it (give it a sniff, and maybe make a small amount of whipped cream or something simple where the flavor is easily detectable) before you want to give it away, and then decide for yourself. If it seems comparable to other vanilla extracts, then go for it! In my experience, the alcohol is still a bit harsh at this stage, but you may find that’s not the case.

      Reply
  10. Susan Bivens

    Did you have any issue with white globs that were attaching to the vanilla oil? I’ve had mine steeping for about three to four weeks and checked it last night and it had all these white dots on the oil, I shook it and they started to move off, but I’m having trouble getting a good read if this is vanillin or something else? I don’t know how bacteria could grow in vodka…any ideas?

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      Hi Susan!

      I don’t personally have any experience with that happening. I know that dry vanilla beans can develop white spots due to the vanillin in them crystallizing. This is completely natural, and a good thing! I haven’t heard of this happening while the beans are soaking in vodka, but that could be what it is.

      It is possible for vanilla beans to develop mold (typically as a result of the beans not being dried/cured properly). I think it is unlikely that that is what it is, seeing as they are sitting in alcohol, but looking around online I’m finding that it does happen from time to time. If your jar was thoroughly cleaned before using, has been kept airtight, and the beans are completely submerged in the alcohol, the only thing I can think of is that the beans themselves were not dried/cured properly, and contained enough moisture / bacteria to produce mold. You may be able to contact the place you ordered your beans from and see if anyone else has had similar complaints.

      Again, I’ve never dealt with this first hand, but if it were me I would keep the jar around for a few more weeks and check it again. If there is significantly more white stuff, I would call it mold and throw it away.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  11. Nedrra Lanakila

    What a great post–thank you for all the research and experience you’ve shared! Can vanilla bean powder be used along with vanilla beans? Also, do you know of anyone who has combined two alcohols in their extract? What comes to mind is egg nog and how some people only used one alcohol, and some use two or more to customize it to their taste. Currently I have my extract soaking now for 3 months in Grey Goose, and now I’m tempted to add (it needs…refilling) either VSOP Brandy or Bacardi Gold Rum. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      Hi Nedrra, glad you found it helpful! As far as I know, vanilla powder is made from whole, ground up vanilla beans, so I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t work, except that it might be hard to keep submerged in the alcohol (I don’t know, I’ve never tried it). I’ve only ever made extracts using vodka, but I know a lot of people use brandy, bourbon, rum, or other alcohols. I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t mix them — that’s the joy of making things like this from scratch, you can make them unique! :)

      Reply
  12. Nedrra Lanakila

    BTW: another reason I’m grateful to have found your article pinned on Pinterest is the recipe I followed for Vanilla Extract back in October (also found on Pinterest) said the extract would be ready in 6-8 weeks. I thought I was making it for 2013 Christmas gifts, but it was FAR from being ready–way too strong an alcohol smell to it. So, thanks again and I’m glad these last 3 months are not a lost cause! hugs (I’m from Hawaii: we hug here, even virtually)

    Reply
    1. Willow Arlen

      Heheh, I am all for hugs! I’ve seen a lot of recipes saying the extract will be ready in 6-8 weeks, but I have never, ever found my extract to be usable before 3 months, and even then I prefer to let it sit for longer, just to mellow out the alcohol. I don’t know where they get the idea that 8 weeks is enough!

      *hugs*

      Reply
  13. Pingback: Homemade Vanilla Extract - Peas n' Eggs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>