February 19, 2014

Simple Steps: Make your own vanilla

Over the course of the last year, I've had to really prioritize my real food efforts. There's been times when I just couldn't handle the demands of four kids, household tasks, school commitments, work and Meili's medical & therapy appointments well enough to continue to do things like make my own ketchup. One of the toughest things about eating the way we do is the lack of quick, easy foods. For example, to have ranch dip for our veggies, I have to make my own mayonnaise (because the only ones available at the store are made with canola oil), combine it with sour cream (which thankfully I can get at the store), measure out all the spices, mix it together and let it chill for an hour.

Almost everything we eat requires a multi-step preparation process.
It's a lot of work, though overall, it's worth it most of the time. When something's gotta give, it's usually the ketchup, or the mayo, or homemade cereal. However, there are a few things that are SO easy and cost effective, it would be crazy NOT to do them. 

Making your own vanilla is nothing novel. There are a thousand other bloggers who have written about how to do this. Still, I'm going to share how I do it because it's working so well, and because if you're eating real food, chances are you use a LOT of vanilla since the foods you eat don't have added flavoring, so having a large amount on hand is a must.

First, let's look at what this helps us AVOID: 
(Definitely avoid artificial flavoring - it's exactly that - artificial! Don't eat it. Period.)

Tones "pure" vanilla extract - the cheapest one. $2.50/oz

See anything in there that seems out of place? 
Yep! Corn syrup. Someone please tell me why on earth you need corn syrup in vanilla?!? It's likely made with genetically modified corn, so now you've got added sugar and GMOs. 

Watkins brand "pure" vanilla extract - $2.65/oz

Glucose syrup = added sugar. Again, unnecessary.

Morton & Basset Pure vanilla extract - $3.40/oz

This one touts no added sugar, non-irradiated and gluten free - awesome!
But kind of pricey.

Moving on to the health food section….

Simply Organic - $2.50/oz
Singing Dog - $3.37/oz
Frontier - $2.25/oz

All the ingredients in these are easy. Water, alcohol, vanilla bean extractives. Nothing wrong with that. It really surprised me that the Simply Organic was the same price per ounce as the Tones. If I was going to buy this at the store, Simply Organic or Frontier would probably be my first choice. The only thing I'm curious about is that the alcohol content is not listed in either of these. Thirty-five percent alcohol is standard in most extracts (like all the ones I found) and it should not be less than that. Hopefully it isn't in these two. Premium vanillas typically have a higher alcohol content because alcohol extracts the flavor better than water. 

SO…..to make high quality vanilla, you just need some alcohol!

And vanilla beans, of course :)

My ingredients were: 
Bottom shelf vodka. You don't need to be fancy here. This was $11 on sale.
Vanilla beans. Purchased 1 pound of organically grown (though not certified organic) from a very reputable seller on ebay for $25 and split it with a friend = $12.50


I intended to make two quarts, so while you can do this all in one container, I wanted to try two different methods so I used two jars, which I already had.

You want to expose the inside of the bean to the alcohol to get maximum extraction. For the first jar, I took half the beans and sliced them down the center, lengthwise. A good knife is helpful here!

I added these to one jar.

They were a little bit tall, but I just smashed them down.

For the second jar, I sliced all the beans crosswise into smaller, one-inch segments.

They definitely fit better this way.

Next step is to add the vodka. You can also use rum, but Vodka was cheaper and seems to be the alcohol of choice for this project.

And that's it!
Put the lids on tightly and shake them up well.
Now the key is TIME.
For the vanilla to be properly extracted, I waited four months. Many people wait six, but since I had smaller jars I didn't need to wait as long. Store them in a cool, dry place and shake them up once a week or so. I kept them in my laundry room and shook them up when I did a load.

After four months, a visual comparison showed that the jar with the cut up pieces was much darker, so I started using that one first. 

At this point, we've made 64 ounces of vanilla for $23.50. That's about 37 cents per ounce!

New vodka added to the first jar
It's already crazy cheap, but it gets better.
After using half of the first jar, you can add more vodka.
Then put that one back to age and start on jar 2. When jar 2 is half empty, you can add more vodka, let it age, and bring jar 1 back out again. I've done this successfully with the rest of the second bottle of vodka (another $11), bringing my total cost to $34.50 for 128 oz = 27 cents/oz! (since the beans take up some space, the total useable vanilla is slightly less than 128 ounces, but it's still an amazing deal!)

Doing this, you should be able to have a continuous source of vanilla after the initial extraction period. When it seems like the vanilla is getting weak, simply start over with new beans.

You could even use fancy vodka if you feel like that would give you super-premium vanilla and it would still be a significantly better deal than anything you can buy in the store.

Simple, easy, high-quality and no additives. That's the best way to do real food!


  1. Sounds very interesting and definitely healthier and cheaper. Keep sharing these nifty little hints. Thanx, Ann

  2. Looks like a fun process. Were you at all concerned about the origin of the vodka? Vodka does have different sources like potatoes and wheat. There is Prairie Vodka that is made from organic corn farmed just over the border in MN and American Harvest which is made from organic wheat. Just in case you cared about that at all.

    1. Since we don't have any real food allergies, I wasn't too concerned and just went for the cheap stuff since I hadn't done it before and wanted to invest a minimal amount of money. That's a good point though, especially for people that may have gluten or corn allergies. Thanks for the suggestions!