October 24, 2014

Vanilla Extract ~ Austin Food Photography

Perfectly Random

I realize this is another departure from our usual wedding and portrait photography post, but I hope you will indulge us a little bit.

Quite a few of my friends and family have learned that I have increasingly subscribed to the whole DIY philosophy. It doesn’t always work, but there are a lot of advantages to making up your own things, especially when it comes to food and cooking. Lower cost is one advantage, especially if you already have materials on hand. But being able to know and control what goes into what you make is a bigger plus, in my option.

Today, I started an adventure and lesson in patience. Well, that’s exactly what it is: you make vanilla extract and you have to wait. You can wait for four weeks and get perfectly acceptable results. But for really exceptional results, you have to be patient enough to wait at least twice that amount of time. Heck, I’m opting to hold out for six months.

A few days ago, I placed on order for 1/2 pound of grade B vanilla beans. Articles on the internet had a general consensus: grade B beans are better for extract because they may look skinny but they’re less moist. Less moist means less weight which means more flavor per pound. Beanilla.com has a really great price for grade B Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans and they got great reviews on the internet so they’re the source I used.

From the research I did, it seems that the number of beans per cup of liquid varies very widely. But it seemed like 6 beans per 8 ounces was pretty acceptable for single fold or single strength vanilla. Double the number for double fold. For our batches, I compromised between the two and used 18 beans for each pint. I had enough for two pint jars and one pint-and-a-half jar.

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You begin by splitting the beans in half lengthwise. Fortunately, we just bought a couple of pretty sharp santoku knives from Costco. Sharp knives are safer, they say. In my case, the fear of getting slashed kept me more careful. I’ve had to deal with that before so I know there’s a good reason for the fear.

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You can see the caviar—the tiny, fragrant vanilla beans—when the pods are split. The kitchen and my hands smelled amazing! Each slit bean was sliced into thirds cross-wise to make it easier to fit them into the jars.

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For the extract, I purchased a bottle of vodka from Costco. I had no clue which to pick but the very attentive salesperson found out what I had plans to do and recommended this one. It is a grain vodka and 40% proof (you want 35% or higher). Unfortunately, this kind of alcohol might not work if you plan to gift some extract to someone who has Celiac’s disease because you can’t say for sure that it’s gluten free. But you can check with the store and see if they have another option for extract-making. When we were kids, my dad would buy double-fold vanilla and add some to rum to make his extract so you may try that.

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I enlisted Jesse’s help pouring so that one, I could take photos and two, he’s a lot more careful than I am. A lot more.

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Once each mason jar was full of beans and vodka, I sealed them and added the date on top so I could be sure to know when they hit six months of age. I ran out of my pretty washi tape so plain old tape had to suffice.

They’ll need to be shaken daily for a couple of weeks and then every so often as they age and the beans give off their essence.

On the left, you can already see how the liquid has gotten a slight amber color after shaking the jar a few times. On the right, it’s so much darker and that’s only after a couple of days.

These jars, since they’re clear, will need to be put away in the very dark pantry while they age. Ideally, they would be kept in dark amber bottles to ensure that they aren’t damaged by light but I didn’t have any of those.

Once they’re ready to use, I believe that I can replace what I remove from the bottles with more alcohol for quite some time. I will have to double check that information, though. We have maybe a cup’s worth left so I can save it for that purpose. I can’t wait until these are done. The smell in the house is amazing and that was just the preparation. I want to vanilla everything now!

My hope is that, as Christmas comes around, I can transfer some of the beans and extract into pretty jars to give as gifts. Tags with the date the extracts were stashed and instructions to enjoy now or wait for even better results will be included. I haven’t found the perfect little jars yet, but I will be happy to document that process for you, too.

Have any of you ever tried to make your own vanilla extract? I’d love to know if you did and what your results were like, especially if you used beans that are different from the Madagascar Bourbons we used.

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