Homemade vanilla extract is probably the most-used ingredient in my kitchen after flour and sugar.
I always have a stack of beans and bottles of vanilla extract. I admit I don’t always make my own, but it is something, like homemade yogurt, that once you make it, you’re ruined to the store-bought version.
It is easy to make, but to get the best result you have to be patient. The longer you let the vanilla beans sit in the vodka, the better and stronger the flavor. I let this bottle sit for 5 weeks before opening it (I used a LOT of beans, so it matured faster, if you use less, it can take up to 12 weeks to have enough flavor), which was a test of willpower I didn’t know I possessed. The result is like perfume, I add this homemade vanilla extract to all of my recipes and dab a bit behind my ears (not really, but maybe I should). I do use it in everything from cakes to cocktails.
What You Need for Homemade Vanilla Extract
- Glass Bottle with stopper or cap (the one I used had juice in it and I cleaned it and then sterilized it) – the size doesn’t matter, you can make a large or small amount.
- Vodka – You need enough to cover the beans in the bottle you choose. There is no need to break the bank with the vodka you use, I go for the cheap stuff since it’s just meant to carry the flavor of the vanilla. You can also use rum or other neutral-flavored alcohol.
- Vanilla Beans (click here to see which ones I use) – The amount will depend on the size of the jar you make, but you want to use a bunch to get the best flavor. I used about 18 beans in 750ml of vodka. The beans can be expensive, so you can also keep the pods after you have scraped out the seeds for another recipe. This will take longer, because you aren’t adding the flavorful pulp, but it is a great way to use the pods. I add one to the bottle every time I have another pod. (Don’t use them if they have been used in a recipe already, like custard) – Here is more information on vanilla beans
Alcohol-Free Vanilla Paste – The base for a non-alcohol vanilla paste is Vegetable Food Grade Glycerin. This is a thick paste and you will use less per recipe because it is a higher concentration of vanilla. It is perfect for people who don’t want the addition of alcohol. Here is a helpful post about how to make this version.
How to Make Vanilla Extract
See the end of this post for the full recipe.
Clean your bottle and dry it well.
If you are using the whole vanilla beans, scrape out the pulp of a bunch of beans. (there are versions that leave the beans uncut, but then you don’t have the power of flavor released by the oils and seeds)
Put the pod and scraped pulp into the bottle. (Scraping out the pulp first will help it flavor the alcohol quicker.)
Once you have all the beans scraped and added to the bottle…
Pour the vodka into the bottle. You can use a Funnel to make sure you don’t spill. I didn’t have one that was small enough, so I used a large round pastry tip.
Close the stopper on the bottle and shake the vanilla and vodka to distribute the seeds.
The vodka will still be clear for the first few days. Once every couple of days give the extract a good shake to break up the pulp and get the seeds distributed in the vodka.
After a week the extract will start to get darker and develop some flavor. After a few weeks you can use the extract, but the flavor will be very subtle and have a strong alcohol taste.
At week 3 the color should be amber and the aroma is richer, but waiting for weeks 8 to 12 is when it gets really exciting. Use it in any recipe that calls for vanilla extract. If you are using it in buttercream, you may want to strain out any of the pulp. You will still have the seeds in your recipe, but any of the stringy bits from the pod will get strained out.
Refilling the Bottle: The extract can be kept indefinitely and over the months/years it just keeps getting better. You will need to add more beans and refill with more vodka to replenish the bottle as you use it. I add more vanilla beans and vodka as the bottle gets to 2/3 full. If you let it get much lower then you’ll dilute all the beautiful flavor you’ve developed!
Store-bought vanilla extract HACK: A super easy way to get a more intense flavor from your favorite bottle of store-bought “pure” vanilla extract* is to add a split and scraped vanilla bean to it. That will give your recipe a boost of flavor from the seeds. It won’t be quite as intense a flavor as the bottle chock full of beans, but it is a great way to start!
*avoid imitation/artificial flavor vanilla extract for the best flavor.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Where do you get your vanilla beans? Here is more about the beans I use and where I source them.
- Where is your vanilla bottle from? I have several bottles of vanilla going at all times, but they’re all different. I clean and reuse my husband’s Bulleit Whiskey bottles. I don’t use the whiskey to make the vanilla because it competes with the vanilla flavor, I just like the bottle. I also have one from a bottle of juice I bought at Whole Foods and IKEA often has bottles with stoppers.
- What is bourbon vanilla? When you see vanilla extract that’s labeled “bourbon vanilla” it refers to the type of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans and has nothing to do with the alcohol of the same name. So, Bourbon Vanilla is NOT made with bourbon. If you choose to use a strong flavored alcohol, just keep in mind that it will be adding that flavor to all your recipes as well. More about other vanilla varieties here.
- How do I refill my vanilla as I use it up? Feel like it won’t be as vanilla-y. You need to add more Vodka AND more vanilla beans to keep the flavor in balance. See my process in the post above.
- Why isn’t my vanilla turning dark like yours? Time and the amount of vanilla beans will determine the color and potency of the vanilla. You need to let it steep for a couple of months, shaking it every so often to distribute the seeds. Make sure you have several beans per cup of vodka or it won’t have enough flavor.
- Do you ever remove the beans from the bottle? No! The beans in the bottle will never go bad because they are sitting in alcohol which will preserve them. If the bottle gets too full of beans over time and I can’t fit more in, then I start a new bottle.
- My vanilla tastes too alcohol-y! The extract is alcohol-based, so you will taste some alcohol, but the vanilla flavor should be strong. The alcohol burns off when baking, so you won’t taste that in your recipes.
- Can I switch from bourbon or rum in my homemade vanilla, to vodka? Yes, vodka has almost no flavor, which is why I prefer it to any other alcohol when making vanilla. It allows the vanilla to shine. It may take a while to replace all the bourbon, but eventually, it will happen. Keep adding vanilla beans too.
- Can I make non-alcoholic vanilla? Yes, see my process above. It isn’t an extract as much as a paste, but equally delicious.
- Glass Bottle with stopper or cap
- Vanilla Beans (the more the better)
- Clean your bottle and dry it well.
- If you are using the whole vanilla beans, scrape out the pulp of a bunch of beans.
- Put the pod and scraped pulp into the bottle. (Scraping out the pulp first will help it flavor the alcohol quicker.)
- Pour the vodka into the bottle. You can use a funnel to make sure you don’t spill. I didn’t have one that was small enough, so I used a large round pastry tip.
- Close the stopper on the bottle and shake the vanilla and vodka to distribute the seeds. The vodka will still be clear for the first few days. Once every couple of days give the extract a good shake to break up the pulp and get the seeds distributed in the vodka. After a week the extract will start to get darker and develop some flavor. After two weeks you can use the extract, but the flavor will be very subtle.
- At week 3 the color should be amber and the aroma is richer, but waiting for week 5+ is when it gets really exciting. Use it in any recipe that calls for vanilla extract. If you are using it in buttercream, you may want to strain out any of the pulp. You will still have the seeds in your recipe, but any of the stringy bits from the pod will get strained out.
- Refilling the vanilla extract: As you use the vanilla, you can add more vodka and vanilla beans to refill it and keep it going for years. After I've scraped the seeds from a bean for a recipe, I just toss the bean into my bottle and shake it up. If your bottle gets to be half empty and you refill it with vodka, you will want to add a few more beans to make sure you're not diluting it too much.