Making your own vanilla extract is the easiest thing in the world. All you need are vanilla beans, vodka and patience. Split your beans most of the way through with a pair of kitchen scissors and pop them into a bottle , fill it with vodka, then let it brew for three months or more. Give it a shake occasionally and marvel at how quickly it turns a rich, dark amber.
Start with six to ten beans in a 700ml bottle – ten is probably more than you need, but I bought my vanilla pods in bulk, so I have lots to play with. As the extract is maturing, I’ll also add in beans which have been scraped out and used for other cooking, so the bottle gets quite full after a while. Trust your nose – sniff if occasionally, and when it seems strong enough, decant a little out to use. You can then top the bottle up with more vodka and allow it to mature again.
After experimenting with various spirits, I’ve found that vodka produces the most aromatic result. I’ve had moderate success with a mild brandy, but after a few months, it still smells more of alcohol than vanilla.
When vanilla extract is made commercially, chopped beans are boiled up and percolated through a base alcohol. This is done to maximise the extraction from the beans in the shortest possible time. By contrast, cold macerating the pods for several months is a gentle process, and the vanilla aroma and flavour extracted from the beans is very pure and clean, without any stewed or cooked overtones. You’ll be able to taste the difference in your baking!
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Use this vanilla extract to make a wicked vanilla syrup!