Vanilla is the second-highest priced spice in the world. Saffron is the first. I don’t use saffron much but I could drink vanilla.
Two problems: I can’t grow vanilla on the Poser Homestead. And… who can afford to buy it these days. It’s fifty bucks a cup.
But then, I joined a vanilla co-op. A woman named Stephanie sourced vanilla beans, bough them bulk and split them up for co-op members. They sent money in via PayPal or Venmo. It was all on faith and trust. The group is a community. I got to know Stephanie and several other women in the group–it’s one of the few 100% positive spaces I’ve experienced on social media.
I liked vanilla when I joined the co-op, but the women I came to know made me fall in love with vanilla. Vanilla isn’t one thing. It’s like coffee, chocolate, or other regional foods. Each variety has a flavor profile. I learned about each–about regions, blends, best alcohols to extract each with, and what each person was using theirs for. I uncovered another artisan food craft by accident.
You can make vanilla–and most of your extracts. With a little planning ahead as with any tincture or ferment, you can have a lifetime supply.
Why you have to stick up a bank to afford vanilla…
Vanilla prices are at all-time highs. In 2015, a kilogram of vanilla cost about $100 and a gallon of extract would’ve run you about $100. That seems expensive but it’s not. It’s really cheap considering it takes over 13 ounces of beans and some nice booze to make a gallon of extract. A hundred bucks is completely justifiable, based on the cost of booze alone.
Before I learned about vanilla, a gallon of vanilla would’ve lasted me the rest of my life. I’d pass it on to the next generation, who’d dump it down the sink, asking, “Why’d she leave me this crap?” They’re probably planning to estate sale my canning jars, too.
Today, I’m putting vanilla in everything, and just like the jams, spreads, and treats in the canning jars, people are interested. “I’ll take some vanilla,” has been the number one visit-Poser-Homestead-leave-with-food request.
Recent global political strife and a cyclone in Madagascar (which produces 80% of the world’s vanilla beans) made prices skyrocket. There was already a declining supply of vanilla–since 2007 farmers were walking away from production. People were using cheaper ingredients like imitation vanilla due to the recession, and there wasn’t today’s push for organics and natural ingredients. Imitation vanilla has ingredients that are possibly somewhat carcinogenic, and are falling out of favor today. Vanilla takes from one to three years to grow, and farmers shifted to other things. Now, with global interest and prices on teh rise, there’s still a hole in the vanilla comododity market that’ll last for some time to come.
I’m not really supposed to say “commodity” and “global market” on Poser Homestead. I’m supposed to kill zucchini and tell you why I extract vanilla (and why you should, too).
Here’s why: It’s easy, fun, and the quality of your vanilla will be better than in the store. While it’s not 100% cheap, it’s an heirloom foodie craft that’ll save in the long run. And it’s really easy–if you can’t do this, you need to go back to the city, plug in your Bloomberg terminal, and order your dinner on Grubhub.
The only difficult part about extracting vanilla (and other things) is sourcing quality ingredients and deciding on the alcohol you will use before you drink it.
The two biggest decisions you will make
You can choose any vanilla beans and any 35% (70-proof) alcohol. There are a million combinations. It’s all over the web. There are even entrpreneurs selling “kits.” You choose the empty bottle type and lid color. They send the bottle, cap, and bean. You fill that bottle with your own booze, drop in the bean, and wait. This kit makes 2 ounces of vanilla and costs $19.95. 2 ounces is not enough of anything on a homestead. And the cost: that’s $160 a pint plus the booze. My point is this–you can do this yourself better and cheaper. It’s not rocket science. It’s gravity–drop vanilla in booze. Don’t drink booze. That’s it.
Here are the two tough decisions.
The type of vanilla bean you use will influence the extract. Vanilla comes from several regions of the world. Each has a distinct taste. The vanilla makers I met are passionate about their favorites. They showed off photos of their collections regularly. Many didn’t drink but had collections of booze soaked beans that’d put an Irish pub to same. They had several combinations of vanilla extracted with different alcohols, each used for a specific thing.
Here are a few regions of beans:
- Uganda: “Rich and chocolatey.” My batch isn’t ready yet. I’ll edit this when it is. The vanilla people are wild about Ugandan beans, reporting them to be quite intense. I have two batches brewing, one in a Woodford Kentucky bourbon and the other in Stoli vodka.
- Papua New Guinea: I’m not an expert on “vanilla notes.” I steeped some of these in milk with sugar and they tasted great to me–like an earthy vanilla. I have a few batches brewing right now in vodka and rum.
- Madagascar: When I did the steeped milk test, this was not as strong but it was my first batch of vanilla to be ready, and even though it wasn’t the first I made it was strong. Also, I didn’t use enough beans (I put it in Tito’s vodka), yet it was still strong. I loved it. I’ll make more when these beans become available.
- Indonesian: I have this brewing in several alcohols, too. I’m trying to identify whether the Madagascar vanilla I loved (above) was due to the Titos vodka or the Madagascar beans, so I’m making a batch of Indonesian beans in Titos to see. My other batches aren’t quite ready yet–the Stoli and the rum. But, this was a nice flavor in the milk test. It was my favorite straight in the milk in the beginning.
- Tahitian: This was my least favorite in the milk test. It was like vanilla combined with flowers. I tested it against Indonesian and Papua New Guinea beans, and I didn’t like it in the beginning. However, it was my first batch to be ready enough to use. I made two batches, using Stolichnaya vodka and Captain Morgan’s rum. The rum was wonderful in coffee creamer and baking.
- Tongan: didn’t try it. I’m told it’s “strong but flowery.”
Not all booze is created equal. If you drink, you know this. If you’re a foodie-booze snob, you know this more. Many vanilla people say you can use the cheapest 35% alcohol possible–they suggest vodka, saying vodka doesn’t have a taste.
Two things: Never use cheap booze in anything. Just don’t. Nothing good ever comes from using something intended or a fraternity party or disinfecting counters. My rule of booze and cooking: if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. Here are some types of alcohol you can use in extracting:
- Vodka: I hate vodka but I trust the vanilla people. They swear by vodka. So, for many of my bottles, I used vodka. I started using top-shelf Stolichnaya then shifted to craft-brew Titos. It’s much less expensive and all the twenty-somethings I know who have jobs and good taste drink it. No need to overspend on Stoli. What I found is this–my Stoli batches are taking longer to extract than my Tito’s. And, I can really smell and taste vodka, which I can’t in the Tito’s when I use or sniff it.
- Rum: I used Captain Morgan’s spiced rum, but forgot that it’s already spiced which technically influences the vanilla. I put the Tahitian vanilla in some of that. It’s about ready and very good.
- Bourbon: I don’t really drink but I like the taste of bourbon best. It’s a great flavoring and cooking friend. I raided my sad and lonely bar and came up with a bottle of Woodford Kentucky Bourbon that was waiting for eggnog season. I diverted it to vanilla. It’s not quite ready but I think this will be great for holiday baking–and eggnog season.
- Some vanilla people used brandy. I did not.
- Extracts take a while. Vanilla takes 3 months minimum. Most chefs and vanilla lovers say it takes a year, even two. Chef Ina Garten has a jar she’s had for 30 years–she maintains it with the same love of a sourdough starter–using and adding to it over time.
- There are two ways to extract–the cold method and the hot method. The “hot method” extracts faster.
- They say you can use any alcohol that’s 70 proof “or above.” There is a point where too high a proof doesn’t benefit the extract, and actually makes extracting harder. Use a solid standard bottle of booze–most are 70-80 proof (35–40% alcohol). For comparison, store-brand vanilla is 35% alcohol (70 proof).
- Never use an Instant Pot to make vanilla–there are some Pinterest recipes out there with instructions. Ignore them. Alcohol plus pressure: that’s a bomb. Alcohol is highly flammable. When you put it under pressure, it can explode. Make vanilla, not bombs.
- If you use the hot method and have a gas stove, be very careful. My first time, I dripped vodka on my burner and nearly burned my face off. I heated it in a mason jar in a saucepan of with water. The vodka was in a closed mason jar, heating slowly. I swirled the jar to heat evenly, but some vodka dripped. Again, a closed jar is alcohol under pressure. Unsealed mason jars leak. This was stupid–less stupid than the Instant Pot but right up there.
Homestead Vanilla Extract
- Vanilla beans
- Booze (vodka, rum, or bourbon–the ideal alcohol is 75-80 proof)
- a mason jar or the booze bottle
- Get some vanilla beans.
- Put the beans in the jar. The FDA definition for vanilla is 13.35 ounces of beans with not more than 25% moisture per gallon of alcohol. This breaks down to about 3.2 ounces for a fifth of a liter of alcohol for a “single fold vodka” (regular strength–double fold, or “baker’s vanilla,” you must double the vanilla).
- Wait at least six months but maybe more.
- Give your jars a shake weekly. Some people swear by opening their jars and venting them a minute or two a week. Some say they never do that.
- Wait some more.
- You can top off your jars if you use a little to keep it going. You can also add more beans and scrape and use the beans to cook with.
- Heat the alcohol over very low heat until it steams. I do this right in the jar I’ll be using. I make the bottle or jar into a double boiler by using a pan full of water with a flipped steamer on the bottom so the bottle isn’t in contact with the bottom of the pan itself. I want to be gentle about heating. Be very careful any time you heat alcohol. Do not walk away from this, and don’t do anything crazy like letting it flambé your kitchen. You will get burned.
- Take the alcohol off the stove and add the beans. Cool and store in a dark place.
- Wait several months. The hot method is a quicker method of extracting, but ready quicker this way, but you still need to be patient.
- Shake the jars weekly or so.
- Use and top off when ready.
How do you know it’s ready?
You simply wait. I can’t “simply” do anything. So, once every month or two, I sniffed and sampled. I’d say, “Nope. Not yet.” and wait some more until my first batch was ready.
Photo credit: Gate74 via Pixabay.