The Great Vanilla Extract Experiment

by Christina Geyer on February 28, 2008 · 17 comments

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For six years, I’ve brought a large bottle of vanilla extract home with me from the States every year.  While living in Berlin, I considered the tiny, overpriced bottles available at KaDeWe.  I searched expat and gourmet  shops.  I searched online.  I looked at recipes.  To be honest, it doesn’t look that difficult to make your own, so it’s time to step it up a notch.  It’s time to start living what I preach.  It’s time for me to make my own vanilla extract.

Ingredients for vanilla extract

There are a myriad of recipes out there, just google and you’ll find them, but here’s mine. You’ll need:

  • 1/2 liter of alcohol – You don’t need top of the line booze*, anything will do, as long as it’s 40% alcohol (that’s 80 proof). Vodka is nice and neutral, but I’ve seen dark rum in a lot of recipes. Since we don’t quite have a full bottle of vodka, I’m adding a small bottle of dark rum to the mix.
  • 4-6 vanilla beans
  • a jar with a lid

Splitting vanilla beans

I decided that if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna go all the way. So I searched and found an online shop Vanille aus Madagaskar, that sells 9 Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar for €12,90 (plus postage).  This is quite the savings over the beans sold in the supermarkets, they look nicer, and are higher quality too. I took each bean and split it down the middle, leaving one end intact. Some recipes say to scrape the bean, but I chose not to.

Vanilla extract - Week 0

I dropped the 6 split vanilla beans into the jar, then topped them with the vodka and dark rum. It’s important now to store the container in a dark, cool place. It will take at least 4-6 weeks before you’ll be able to use the extract, and 6 months to full maturity.

* If you plan on keeping the extract around for 10 years or so, you will want to use high quality alcohol – but I’m not making enough to last that long.

Week 1

Vanilla extract - Week 1

After one week of steeping, the extract is already a beautiful dark amber color.  It still smells rather strongly of alcohol, but the vanilla scent is there.  The jar gets shaken, and put back in it’s dark, cool spot.

Month 10

I forgot to update this post at the 6 week and 6 month mark, but by 6 weeks the vanilla was incredible and it just kept getting better.  By 6 months, it was by far a higher quality than anything I’d bought in a store.  I’ll never go back to buying vanilla extract again.  It’s easy, it just takes a little time, and it’s much cheaper.  I used to ration out the vanilla extract, since I had a limited supply and could only restock during trips to the US.  I’d ask whether I really wanted to put in it the french toast batter this week, or should I use some vanilla essence in the chocolate chip cookies instead.  Now I don’t hesitate to use it.

Full strength vanilla on 5 Jan 2009

At 10 months, I decided to add more vodka to the vanilla extract.  Since I already have aged extract in the jar, it will only take a week or two to get back to full strength.

Refilled vanilla on 5 Jan 2009

Instead of keeping it at 1/2 a liter, I went ahead and filled the jar up to the top.  Because I added so much additional alcohol, it may take a little longer to get back to full strength, but even now it has a good vanilla scent and flavor.

Month 13

It probably took a good 4 weeks to get back to it’s former strength, but that’s a lot quicker than the 6 months it took previously.  Pretty soon I’m going to take out the old beans and replace them with new beans, but they seem fine for now, there’s hardly any degradation and the vanilla flavor is still strong, so I’ll leave them for a bit longer. I highly recommend making your own extract, even for cooks in the US, where extract is readily available.

Vanilla, back at full strength 24 March 2009

Want worship-worthier instructions? Check out the Make Vanilla Extract article by Ian on Instructables.

  • silvia

    Wow, thats interessting. I never ettempted to make my own. I even have to confess that I bring back Vanilla in powdered form from Germany…I am curious about the result in a few weeks tho!

  • Christina G

    I’ll keep you informed! I’m curious myself to see how this turns out. It is very easy though!

  • Bek

    Funny – I am importing Vanillezucker to the US. It’s so much easier to use for me:)

  • Diane Mandy

    You are making your own VANILLA EXTRACT. I am so so impressed right now.

  • G

    Hi-firstly, thanks for reading me!
    Great minds must think alike because I was just reading on
    here how to do the same thing. Although I just picked up 2 huge bottles of vanilla at the Publix here in Orlando, so I can put this off for a while;-)

  • Hezamarie

    Wow, Christina. You don’t fool around.

    I’m pretty satisfied with the Spice Island, Pure Vanilla extract. I find it at Hertie’s and the Kaufhof supermarkets in Munich.

    But your stuff looks very intoxicatingly yummy.

  • Migraine Meister

    WOW Christina – RESPECT!

    I only use vanilla extract for my choc. chip cookies and the Dr. Oetker “Finesse Natürliches Bourbon-Vanille Aroma” works really nice for that recipe…

    For which recipes do you use vanilla extract?

    So enjoying your blog and newly added videos!

    My family back in the States would love for us to do a blog like yours, but I could just as well say, “Read Christina’s blog – es geht uns genauso!” – Except I married a life sciences guy and can’t convince my husband to get a dog! (yet!!)

    If you need an idea for a blog, I would love to hear your experiences about owning a dog in Germany/how much it costs/taxes,insurance, obedience school – I mean I already know most of these things from my neighbors, but you have such a cool perspective on things!

    You showed us your local Kindergarten in your last video – have you signed Oliver up yet? Our Kigas are so full here we had to sign up our son when he was 3 months old! What do you think about kids already going to Kiga with 3 years?

    Have a good weekend!

  • rositta

    Christina, thanks for that post. I use a lot of vanilla and never thought about making my own. I will now though for sure…ciao

  • Christina G

    @bek: ohhh, I’ve still got three vanilla beans, that gives me an idea for another post!

    @diane: you are easily impressed, I see 😉

    @g: That’s funny! I wonder how many other people got the idea to make vanilla extract for the first time this month…

    @hezamarie: It’s supposed to be WAAAY better than the stuff in the store. We’ll see…

    @migraine meister: I use vanilla extract for french toast, cookies, cakes, lots of stuff — I will put the dog post on the idea pile, thanks! Maybe it’ll convince your hubby! (Mine took a few years, but I finally broke him down) — We don’t need to sign up at the Kindergarten here until a week before he starts. That’s the nice thing about living in a small village — I don’t have an opinion on the 3 year olds in Kiga thing, but I guess it’s probably fine. Never really thought about it…

    @rositta: You should definitely do it. It’s fun, easy and it’s supposed to be super yummy.

  • christina

    Excellent! I might have to try that now that there are only a few teaspoons left in my bottle of vanilla extract. I always buy a huge one when we’re on holiday and it usually lasts a couple of years.

  • Leesa

    Hey Christina!

    Happy New Year to you! I have to admit that when we went back to Cali. in April I bought 4 very large bottles of yummy vanilla extract from Costco and I have gone through about 2/3 of one bottle since then – I’m a baker!! : ) I have also read about making your own v. extract…It looks pretty easy… we make our own citron confit for tagine and it’s WAYYYY better then the stuff you buy at the store! We used bio citrons, too… Please let me know if your homemade extra was tasty and if you recommend that I make some for myself… If you think it’s a lot better than the store bought stuff, I’ll go ahead… Thanks and thanks for stopping my today… I’m going to go read the rest of your post.. Tchus, Leesa

    Leesas last blog post..Insurance/sminsurance!!

  • Expat21

    Wow, I am so glad to find this. I live in the Middle East, and most of the time they don’t even SELL vanilla extract here (since it has alcohol). So I will try this immediately. I’ve actually had a vinilla ben sitting in my cupboard for a while (which they DO sell here), but I didn’t know what to DO with it!

    Expat 21
    “Expat Abroad”

  • Christina G

    I’ll update this post this weekend. The homemade vanilla extract is so so so much better than the store-bought stuff, even the one from William Sonoma. It’s great making your own too, cause when your bottle gets to half-empty, you just fill it up with vodka again, wait a week, and you’re good to go at full strength, it’s just the initial time that takes so long to mature. You can buy different types of vanilla beans and different alcohols and experiment with the flavor if you’re creative too.

  • Lisa Hecker

    Thank you sooo much for this site and particularly this article on Vanilla extract. I go through so much Dr. Oetker’s Vanilla Bourbon, and my German husband just does not understand my frustration at having to buy those stupid tiny little packets! I’ve been in Germany under a year and really wish I would have found this site sooner! It would have saved me a lot of figuring stuff out on my own. I cannot wait to try the vanilla extract recipe. Vanilla extract was already on my list of things to buy on my next trip to Cali. Hopefully in the future I can take that one off my list! Thanks again!

  • Matt

    Thanks! I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t find extract here in Munich and what I could do about it. Good idea!

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