I don’t know why I am always amazed when I go to the store to buy a good quality vanilla extract to find that an 8-ounce bottle costs from $18 (Madagascar) to $35 (Tahitian). Well, it turns out that vanilla is more expensive than any other flavoring or spice, the one exception being saffron. But why you ask? Vanilla is the fruit of a tropical vine that is part of the orchid family. When grown commercially, the flowers of the vine are hand-pollinated and thinned to ensure the quality of the bean. Once harvested it takes around eight months to cure and dry the beans before they can be packed for shipping.
There are primarily two varieties of commercially available vanilla beans – Madagascar or Mexican, and Tahitian. Yes my friends, Madagascar and Mexican are the same species… good to know for my SoCal peeps! It seems those crafty Spaniards snaked (read: stole) some vanilla cuttings on their way outta town and planted them on the island of Madagascar. For hundreds of years, Madagascar had the market cornered on vanilla export and today, along with Mexico, is the major producer of vanilla. Tahiti is the only other player of note in the vanilla game. Tahitian vanilla is a sweeter and more floral bean and by virtue of economics (umm… remember supply and demand), is almost twice the price. Whew, history and economics lessons accomplished!
One of the perks of working on cooking and cooking reality shows is leftover product and equipment. From a recent show, I inherited somewhere in the vicinity of 100+ vanilla beans. Jealous? Thought so. Well, after giving the majority away, I still had quite a few, so I decided to make vanilla extract.
Making vanilla extract is super easy, economical, and will make an excellent holiday gift! It does take a little planning as you need to wait a month or so before it is ready to use.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
6 long, soft vanilla beans
1 quart good quality vodka
Extra vanilla beans for presentation (optional)
Split the six beans lengthwise and then cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Add the vanilla pieces to a clean 1-quart canning jar and fill with vodka. Let steep in a cool, dark place for 30 to 45 days, shaking the jar every once in awhile. Strain through a cheesecloth lined wire mesh strainer. Return to a clean jar or smaller bottles and add a fresh vanilla bean for presentation.
Store tightly sealed. Vanilla extract will keep indefinitely (blessed by the USDA). There you have it, easy peasy.
I did a little experimenting with the recipe substituting Cuban rum and bourbon for the vodka. For straight on vanilla flavor, vodka is the best choice. The rum and bourbon variations are still very strong in vanilla flavor but, also have the underlying characteristics of smooth, sweet rich rum and smoky sweet bourbon respectively. Both the rum and bourbon vanillas I would gladly use in baking for more dimension of flavor, but also in cocktails. Hmm… vanilla scented Manhattan <<slurp>>!
Peace – J