January 16th, 2009
Wouldn’t you be happy to get this as a Christmas gift? I read Catherine Newman’s post about making homemade vanilla as Christmas gifts and thought, Brilliant! I’m gonna do that this year! So we did.
I bought a dozen 4-ounce clear Boston round glass bottles and 20 organic Tahitian vanilla beans (I actually received 23 beans). Troy went to BevMo and picked up a couple of liters of vodka. (The helpful Beverage Consultant even recommended this specific brand of vodka, which she thought would bring out the vanilla flavor without overwhelming it. Uh…sure, okay then!) I gathered those supplies along with a cutting board, a clean pair of scissors, a measuring cup and a funnel.
[UPDATE 12 October 2011: The company I originally bought vanilla beans from seems to be on hiatus. Last year I bought beans from the company Vanilla Products USA on eBay, and they were good value for a good product. Or you can just do a search on eBay or Amazon for “vanilla beans” and do your own comparison shopping, of course. Also, I’ve used other kinds of vodka, rum, and bourbon and they all worked just fine—though I think vodka has the most neutral taste. For more questions answered, check out my blog FAQ.)
I also gathered my two lovely and capable assistants, Annalie and my mom Debbie. Really, Annalie did do a lot of the work! Because she’s only four and a half, my mom and I had to help her with cutting the beans and pouring the vodka into the measuring cup, but she was able to do a lot on her own. If your kids are a little older they could probably do this project almost entirely by themselves.
For each bottle of vanilla, you’ll need 2-3 beans and 1/2 cup of vodka. I fudged a little and used something like 1 3/4 beans in most of my bottles, and it turned out plenty vanilla-y. Including the cost of shipping the bottles and the vanilla to my house and the ribbon I tied on the bottles, all the supplies cost me about $50, which means each bottle of vanilla cost a bit more than $4. That’s pretty inexpensive for a cool, useful Christmas gift!
First, we used the scissors to cut each vanilla bean in half lengthwise and then again crosswise.
We stuffed all the bean pieces into the bottles, seven or eight pieces per bottle. I found it easiest to count out the beans first and then hand one bottle and one pile of beans at a time to Annalie, so we didn’t lose track. Once the beans are in the bottle it’s kinda hard to count them.
We got vanilla-bean flecks and sticky juice on our fingers, but it washed off easily and as a bonus made our hands smell yummy.
After we’d distributed all the beans into the bottles, I poured a half-cup of vodka into the measuring cup. My mom held the funnel in the bottle while Annalie poured the vodka in. Then Annalie screwed on the cap.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat till all the bottles are filled and all the lids are on.
I lined up all the bottles in the window because they looked pretty there. The photo above was taken right after we finished filling all the bottles.
Three days later, the vodka had gone from clear to a pretty amber color. Ideally the vanilla should steep for at least a month, till the vanilla is a dark brown. The longer it steeps the stronger the vanilla flavor will be. We didn’t make ours till December 20th, so I just added a don’t-use-until date to the labels.
The vodka, by the way, is just a fairly neutral alcohol base for the vanilla flavor. Vodka is usually between 70 and 80 proof, containing 35-40% alcohol by volume. Commercial vanilla is made—you guessed it—by steeping chopped or macerated vanilla beans in a mixture of water and at least 35% ethyl alcohol. Same thing, more or less!
Sometimes it’s really handy to have a good friend who’s a graphic illustrator! I oh-so-casually mentioned to Brenda that I needed to make labels for the vanilla. Being the nice person she is, she just laughed at my obvious hinting and offered to design one for me. Thanks again Hugh!
Troy and I were talking about how the only ingredients in this vanilla were vodka and vanilla beans, and Troy said, “Don’t forget the love!” That totally cracked us up, so I asked Brenda to put that on the label, along with the best-if-used-after line. Incidentally, if I ever start a food blog it’s totally going to be called “Love, Vodka & Vanilla Beans.”
I tied some festive ribbon around each bottle and added a little handwritten tag clarifying the fact that the the date on the bottle wasn’t the expiration date.
I hope all the recipients enjoy using their homemade vanilla. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make another batch because I gave it all away and I want some homemade vanilla too!
Edited: I forgot to mention…there are a few more photos of the process in the set homemade vanilla extract on Flickr.