Make your own vanilla extract

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.

supplies to make vanilla extract

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.)

Annalie and Gramaw

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.

sparkly bottles

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.

one by one

vanilla beans

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.

explaining something or other

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.


screwing the cap on

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.

still clear

Lather. Rinse. Repeat till all the bottles are filled and all the lids are on.

vanilla ready to steep!

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.

3 days

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!

vanilla labels

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!

best if used after

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.”

explanatory note

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.

114 Responses to “Make your own vanilla extract”

  1. Sabena says:

    Great idea..thanks for sharing .i must try it out ..i’ve got some vanilla bean and vodka…like someone wrote should work well as a cocktail base too…

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  3. Brian says:

    I’ve been a waiter for years and a while back i noticed the pastry chef had a mason jar full of vanilla beans and half full of some dark liquid so I asked her about it. She cuts the vanilla beans length wise about 2/3 of the way up and puts them cut side down in the jar. The liquid was bourbon. When the liquid starts to run low she just tops it off with more bourbon. I’ve had one going for over a year now and it only gets better with time. And I always have a few split vanilla beans in my sugar canister too!

  4. Eli says:

    If you run your vodka through a standard Brita water filter pitcher, you will get a considerably cleaner tasting alcohol to begin with. If filtered a few times through, it will remove the vodka taste and make your vanilla that much more enjoyable.

  5. Oonagh says:

    I’m actually on the way out to buy potato vodka (most vodka nowadays is not potato based) as my son has become gluten intolerant and most vanilla (and the other) extracts are based on grain alcohol. I’m a chef/instructor adapting my from scratch baking to gluten free for my son and clients. So it’s just easier to make my own gluten free vanilla and lemon extracts. I bought 9 lemons yesterday and forgot the vodka.

    And as someone else said about Kreg. My first thought on seeing your little one who reminds me of my son at that age was who’s going to be mean enough to complain about her touching the vodka. As another comment said, in Europe (and I now live in USA) our kids are generally taught how to drink, allowed watered down wine etc. Which is far wiser than over indulging for the first time away from home.

    take care

  6. Jessie says:

    I just stumbled on this article. Great!
    One question though how do you ship this? Aren’t there some liquid shipping restrictions? Just curious. I live away from family (all within the USA) but would love to be able to make it for them.
    Any suggestions are helpful!

  7. Thanks, Jessie! I shipped it by wrapping the bottle in bubble wrap, taping it securely, and putting it in a ziplock bag. Then I packed it in a box with paper or styrofoam peanut padding.

    There are some restrictions on shipping liquids, I think, but I never had any trouble shipping the little 4-oz. bottles that I made.

    Good luck!

  8. Michele says:

    Hi I just found your blog searching for types of vodka to use for making vanilla. You did a wonderful job and your daughter is beautiful!
    I’m just wondering how the vanilla turned out ? Also did you not need to strain it ?
    I’ve decided this will be the perfect project to do with my son while my husband is deployed.
    Thank you again for such detailed instructions!!!!

  9. Michele says:

    Hi its me again :)
    Just curious about vodka recommendations, I’m unable to find that brand at the shopette here and we can’t seem to find a liquor store around here (odd huh LOL)
    I imagine we should get a more pricey one right ?
    Thank you again

  10. Habubrat says:

    I was wondering what type of paper to Brenda use to print the label design so it would attach to the bottle.


  11. whoorl says:

    This is pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

  12. Neatta says:

    I’m wondering if you have any ideas of other containers to put the extract into?

  13. [...] kettle since I had washed them two weeks before in preparation for using them, “are you ready to make another batch of vanilla [...]

  14. Chris says:

    Wow, excellent. I’ll have to whip up a batch of this before the end-of-the-year season comes ’round. Thanks for the recipe!