Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How to make your own vanilla extract

There seems to be some confusion out there regarding extracts, and whether they are gluten (or other allergen) free.  Commercial vanilla extract is made using alcohol and vanilla beans. Any type of alcohol will work (which is great news for those of you who plan to follow this recipe and make your own at home). Commercial extracts do not need to list the type of alcohol used- but it is pretty safe to assume that the alcohol is either derived from gluten-containing grains, or corn (it is possible the alcohol used might come from sugarcane, potatoes, or another starchy substance but you cannot tell from the label on the extract).

Does the type of alcohol, or more accurately, the ingredient from which it is derived, matter? I'm not sure. Shauna of Gluten Free Girl, whose writing I love and research and advice I trust, reports in this post that while it was once believed that alcohol derived from wheat, barley or rye contained gluten, it is now believed that the gluten proteins are destroyed in the distilling process. Therefore, grain based alcohols and extracts would be considered gluten-free. Some brands of extract are certified gluten-free; whether this is because the distilling process has denatured the gluten protein, or because they use an alcohol derived from a non-gluten containing grain, such as corn, I'm not certain. For those with corn allergies, Cornallergens.com lists vanilla extract as an ingredient to avoid.

In the past, I have gotten sick from recipes using commercial vanilla extract (the quality stuff, no fillers or imitation vanilla) and when I substituted vanilla powder instead of extract, I tolerated the dish just fine. That led me to believe the vanilla extract was the culprit. That's when I started using vanilla beans or vanilla powder in all of my baking and smoothies- which I now actually prefer, since I find that the real vanilla bean has an even better flavor than extract... mmmmm.

However, there are some recipes where you may want the vanilla flavor, but you do not want little black specks from the vanilla bean in the final product. What to do?

Good news! It is very easy to make your own vanilla extract. It is also much less expensive to make it yourself than to buy quality commercially prepared vanilla extract. It is also pretty cool to be able to adjust the flavor of your homemade extracts to your needs and liking, simply by varying the type of alcohol or the variety of vanilla bean. Tip: if you are really into vanilla, order a sampler variety packand try different types of beans- I did this a while back and it has been a lot of fun pairing certain varieties with certain recipes.
If (like me) you are wondering which alcohols are derived from which ingredients, a beverage industry site explains this about different types of alcohols (spirits):
Generally speaking, spirits are classified by the fermented material that they are distilled from. Whiskies, Vodka, Gin and most types of Schnapps are made by distilling a kind of beer made from grain. Brandy is made from fermented grape juice, and Fruit Brandy is made from other fruits. Rum and Cane Spirits derive from fermented sugar cane juice or molasses. Tequila and Mezcal come from the fermented pulp of the agave plant. Fortified wines are hybrid beverages in that they are a blend of fermented wine and distilled spirits (usually Brandy).
Note the above is just a general guideline and somewhere to start. If you plan to make your own extracts, and wish to avoid a certain ingredient, be sure to research the ingredients in the specific brand of alcohol you plan to purchase. When I went searching for vodka, believing all vodkas were made from potatoes, I found nearly all of the vodkas at the (very large) liquor store I went to were actually derived from corn. Thanks to the very helpful manager, we did locate a vodka derived from grapes, which was a fantastic surprise. Grapes are even better than potatoes for me!

So, after all of that... here is how you make extract:

Super Easy, Allergy Friendly Vanilla Extract

1-2 vanilla beans of choice
1 cup alcohol of choice
Glass container

Place the vanilla beans in a glass container, and pour enough alcohol in the container to cover the beans.
You do not need to use whole beans, you can use the bean after you've scraped out the inside for another recipe. This is a great way to make those expensive vanilla beans go even further.

I used Indian vanilla beans, because that is what I had on hand. I'd had these for a while, and they were getting a little stiff and not so good for scraping out for baking, so I just broke 2 whole beans in half and put them in the jar.
Keep the mixture in a cool dark place, and every week or so, give the jar a little shake to mix things around. The extract is ready in about 4-6 weeks, but it will continue to get darker and stronger over time.

Here is a comparison with a batch I made a few months ago:
Ideally, you would use a dark glass jar to protect from light, but I just used the paper bag that the vodka came in.
That's it! I will soon be trying this recipe with mint and other flavors to make more extracts. I would love to hear your experience with this, especially if you have tried other flavors.



  1. Thanks Tasha - Vanilla is great! I'm sure it has healing properties? lovely page & info xox Shoshonah

  2. we are trying this! I've made two batches- one for a friend and one for us... and have been amazed to see the extract turn brown already (about a week?). It's hard not to "shake gently" MORE than once a week, b/c I like checking on it.... thanks for the recipe and gift idea :)