Friday, February 4, 2011

Homemade Vanilla

Two years ago I gave out cranberry bread as Christmas favors. Last year I did eggnog bread. But this past Christmas 2010, I had in mind a project. I wanted to make my own vanilla.

I have forgotten quite where I came across this idea, but it did stick. It kept niggling around - you should do that someday, Miss Outlier - and so I kept the project in the back of my mind. But then once I decided that Christmas was a good excuse to make vanilla, suddenly I noticed examples everywhere. The whole world was going around extracting vanilla, it seemed.

It's like spending three months thinking, maybe I should get a new bedspread, and then the day you decide that YES, you do have money for the new bedspread, suddenly you must have one THAT DAY. And you spend two hours at the office shopping on the internet, intent on acquiring what you want (do you know how many OPTIONS there are?). Oh wait - is that just me? Ah, maybe it is. I also spent four months thinking about getting my ears pierced a second time, and then the day I decided on getting it done, the store was closed, so I spent an hour getting across town to another piercing shop rather than wait any longer.

It's just a me thing, I guess. Moving on.

I wanted to make vanilla. Now if you get a real vanilla bean at the whole foods store, just a single one, it's something ridiculous like $2.99 a bean. And I needed about a pound of beans. Yeah, that kind of shoots the whole "cheap homemade gift" idea in the foot. So I did some research, and strangely the best way to get large amounts of high-quality vanilla beans is on eBay. No joke - the wholesalers sell through there.

Figure: 1/2 pound Grade A Tahitian

I also learned that there are two kinds of vanilla beans (from Madagascar, and from Tahiti). And if you buy enough of one kind, they throw in a half pound of the other kind. Well OBVIOUSLY. I now am the proud owner of both kinds, and also more beans than any rational person should need.

The way you make vanilla extract is to basically get a bunch of alchohol, cut up vanilla beans, dump them in, and wait. The alcohol of choice is usually vodka. To make as much vanilla as I had bottles, I had to buy three handles of vodka at the liquor store. The fact that I barely got a second look with that purchase is a testament to the college town that Boston is, I think...

You can either put the beans in the vodka bottle, and then portion the vanilla into smaller containers when it's ready, or you can put the vanilla beans directly in the individual bottles and fill with vodka. I thought it looked kind of cool to see the actual beans in the bottle, so I chose the latter.

The bottles start out clear, obviously, because vodka is colorless (not odorless. my dorm residents were a little worried about me for a day - my whole room smelled like alcohol). Then over time, the vanilla extracts out and the liquid turns amber and then brown. 

Figure: Vanilla, about a month in.
I started the bottles in October, and kept them lined up on my bookshelf. Every week or so I'd shake them. It takes about three to six months to mature, so I figured Christmas would be just about right.

Figure: Labeled and decorated as gifts
During finals week last December, I took these little bottles around and dropped them off with the administrative assistants and shop guys.

The secretaries loved them - "Oh, these will be perfect for Christmas cookie baking!" one of them exclaimed. The shop guys, on the other hand, were a bit confused. Sort of a, "Thanks, I guess...." was all I got.

But just yesterday one of the shop guys stopped me and said - "My wife says to tell you a big thank you for the vanilla! She's thrilled to have it for baking." So see, I guess that gift just had to find the proper recipient. :)

A Cost Recap:

$19.53 vanilla beans
$27.60 vodka
$20.51 bottles
$67.64 Total

That made 5 of 5 oz. bottles, 5 of 10 oz. bottles, an 8.5 oz., 12.5 oz., and a 17 oz. bottle. So that's 113 oz. for $67.64.

So, 60 cents/ounce.

If you buy pure vanilla at the store, it's about $1.06/ounce or $1/ounce, or you can find it even cheaper for 56 cents/ounce plus shipping. So I didn't come out too far ahead in price, but again - that's really not the point. 

This project was easy and not time consuming, and got good results, so I'd say I'd do it again - except I now have enough vanilla to last me a lifetime, I suspect. In any case, a success!

    1 comment:

    1. If you've got enough, vanilla, move on to other extracts? I made nutmeg, clove and allspice extracts last fall, when trying to make a stealth pumpkin pie (white pumpkin, no visible spice particles, basically, as cheesecake-y as possible). I use them for all sorts of things. Also, if you only want a small batch, the pint bottles of vodka work pretty fantastically.