Making your own vanilla extract from scratch is incredibly easy (not to mention cost effective) — all you need are 2 ingredients (vanilla beans and alcohol) plus a little time and patience. It’s a great way to use vanilla beans leftover from other recipes too!
Homemade gifts are my favorite kind of gifts, and this easy and impressive vanilla extract is an ideal one, especially when presented in professional looking bottles with gorgeous labels (be sure to scroll to the bottom of this post to download the free printable labels!)
Homemade vanilla extract. It sounds so… complicated. So involved. Something akin to distilling your own whiskey or something. But you’d be surprised how simple it is. As easy as pouring some booze into a bottle with a few vanilla beans, and then forgetting about it for 6 months. I think we’re all capable of that.
Yes, it’s after Christmas. Yes, I’m posting a holiday gift idea when gift giving is probably the last thing you want to be thinking about. In my defense, I had to wait, otherwise it would have ruined the surprise for our parents, who each received a set of these vanilla varietals for Christmas.
For what it’s worth, this is not a last minute gift. I let mine steep for about 6 months, in which case it is perfect timing for you to start a batch of your own to be ready by the holidays. So, really, you should be thanking me for giving you such a fabulous gift idea you can get started on so far in advance. You’re welcome.
For this particular batch I purchased three different varieties of vanilla beans: Madagascar, Tahitian, and Tonga. I just love the idea of comparing the subtleties present in each variety and the multi-varietal sampler made the gift that much more special.
The final product was packaged in 4oz amber bottles and stickered with colorful labels I designed indicating the variety. I knew our parents would appreciate these so much more than a store-bought present.
Hooray for planning ahead!
If you’ve wanting to make your own vanilla extract, don’t let the time it takes discourage you, because it really couldn’t be easier. Honestly, the waiting is the hardest part (thanks, Tom Petty for expressing that feeling so perfectly).
To get started, all you need are vanilla beans, booze, and a bottle to store them in. Later on you’ll need a strainer and maybe a funnel (to avoid spillage, because oddly, vanilla extract seems to stain light-colored countertops worse than almost anything else).
Waste Not Want Not
Wait! Don’t throw those empty pods away! Even without the seeds, the vanilla pods have a ton of flavor in and of themselves, so it’s a shame to let them go to waste.
Instead of tossing the spent pods, keep a 16oz bottle of vodka or other alcohol in your pantry by your vanilla beans. Every time you use the seeds of a bean for a recipe, pop the empty pod into the bottle and put it back in the pantry.
Even if you’ve used the vanilla pod itself, say, steeped it it some cream for vanilla ice cream, just rinse it off and then add it to your bottle.
After a few months (or a few years), when you have maybe a dozen beans or so in your bottle, you can use the extract straight from the bottle, or strain out the beans and decant into smaller bottles for gifting.
There are a number of factors that will affect the final outcome of your homemade vanilla extract, from the strength to the final flavor and depth. Feel free to play with different variables to see what you like best!
Type/Proof of Alcohol
The kind of alcohol you use will affect the final flavor, quality, and intensity of your vanilla extract.
Vodka is the most commonly called for alcohol in vanilla extract recipes, mainly because it’s cheap and easy to find. I recommend using the highest proof vodka you can find (higher alcohol percentages will extract more of the flavor from the beans).
I recommend using a 100 or 120 proof vodka for this recipe. Choose one that is relatively inexpensive, but maybe not the cheapest vodka you can find. Slightly higher quality vodkas will have a smoother flavor with less harsh burn. So while I’d probably avoid the absolute cheapest vodka on the shelf for this reason, the 3rd or 4th cheapest would be a great option.
Everclear is the highest proof alcohol available; depending on the liquor laws where you live, you may be able to find 120, 150, or even 190 proof everclear. While I use 190 for my homemade limoncello, it’s incredibly wicked (and also incredibly flammable), so I oped to water it down slightly to 150 for vanilla (1 cup 190 proof everclear plus 1/4 cup filtered water will give you 150 proof alcohol).
Because vanilla extract made with everclear is extremely high in alcohol, I recommend using it for baked goods only (so the alcohol will bake out in the oven), as opposed to something like a panna cotta where the harsh burn of the alcohol might be off-putting in the final product.
Rum, which is made from sugarcane, results in a lovely sweet-tasting vanilla extract. I recommend using a clear or white rum which has a lighter color and more neutral flavor.
Moonshine is a fun variation (moonshine is freshly distilled, un-aged whiskey before it is put in oak barrels to age). Most moonshine is 100 proof, which makes for great extraction.
You can also use bourbon or whiskey, though the final extract will definitely carry more of the flavors from the aged alcohol. But since bourbons and whiskeys often carry notes of vanilla from the oak barrels in which they are aged, I think those flavors would be quite lovely for a homemade extract (in fact, I often replace the vanilla extract in recipes entirely with bourbon or whiskey, so it seems like a natural pairing).
If you’re looking to make an alcohol-free vanilla extract, look into using food-grade vegetable glycerine, which will infuse with vanilla flavor in a similar way to alcohol. It’s generally sweeter-tasting and less potent than alcohol-based extract, so you may need to adjust the quantities used in your recipes accordingly.
Type of Vanilla Bean
Vanilla beans are a lot like coffee beans in that different varieties from different parts of the world have different flavors and aromas.
In fact, I originally designed the labels for my vanilla extract to emphasize the unique varieties of vanilla beans available (back in 2011 when I first wrote this post, I had just received a vanilla bean sampler and was curious to taste the differences between the different kinds of beans).
Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla beans are probably the most common and widely available, and will produce a sweet and classic vanilla flavor. (Madgascar/Bourbon usually refers to the same kind of beans, Bourbon being the variety and Madagascar the origin).
Tahitian vanilla beans lean more fruity/floral and aromatic, while Mexican vanilla beans have a unique smoky and complex flavor. Tongan beans are particularly bold and full-flavored, though also quite rare and hard to find.
When shopping for vanilla beans, you’ll notice different ‘grades’ much like maple syrup. Grade A beans are plump and fragrant and best for cooking. If you’re buying beans with the sole intention of making extract, you can save some money and buy Grade B beans instead, which are generally smaller and may contain splits or cracks.
While you can find vanilla beans for pretty cheap prices on ebay or Amazon, I prefer to purchase from a quality retailer that I know is good quality, like Beanilla or Native Vanilla. And if you can find them, fair-trade or organic vanilla beans are always a good choice.
The longer you let your vanilla extract steep, the more flavorful it will become. Vanilla extract ages in much the same way as a wine or balsamic vinegar does—the longer it steeps, the more robust and refined the flavor.
You need a minimum of 2 months to make vanilla extract, however I prefer to let it steep for at least 6 months to a year. Or, if you happen to be like me and have a bunch of bottles going at once, and accidentally let one drift to the back of the cabinet for 5 years… you’ll be pleasantly surprised (this 5-year batch of extract was by far the best).
To speed up the process… use whole beans (split before using so the inner seeds are exposed to the alcohol), as the presence of the seeds will help to infuse the extract with a stronger flavor more quickly. You can also use more beans (more like 12-15 beans per 2 cups of alcohol), as well as a higher-proof alcohol like everclear, which will absorb the flavor compounds in the vanilla beans more quickly than a lower proof liquor.
For a never-ending supply of vanilla extract, simply top off the bottle with a bit more booze as needed, and continue adding beans as you use them in other recipes. I usually have two bottles going at any given time for this reason. I’ll strain them every year or two, top them off with fresh liquor, and keep adding beans as I use them.
As for the vanilla beans after you strain the extract… if they’ve been steeping for years they are probably well and truly done with and should be discarded. If, however, they’ve only been steeping for 6 months or less, there is still some flavor to be had. You could add them to a fresh bottle of vodka to start a new batch of extract, or you could let them dry out and bury them in a canister of sugar to infused the sugar with a hint of vanilla flavor.
Bottling & Storage
I like to keep my vanilla in amber glass bottles (look for “Boston round” bottles which are the typical shape used for extract). As opposed to clear glass, the dark amber glass helps protect the vanilla from light.
I use 16oz amber glass bottles for my infinite vanilla (I usually have two bottles, one in process and one that I use from). You can also just add your vanilla beans straight into the bottle of vodka or whatever booze you choose to use, but if it’s a clear bottle just make sure you store it somewhere dark to prevent it from degrading or going cloudy.
Then if I want to divide the extract into smaller bottles for gifting, I’ll strain and transfer the extract into 4oz bottles at that point.
As pretty as the cork-top bottles are, you really want a completely airtight lid to prevent any evaporation from occurring (less-than-airtight lids can also leave room for undesirable flavors to seep in too, like if you store your vanilla extract by a jar of apple cider vinegar or something).
Store your vanilla extract in a cool, dark place where it will keep for upwards of 5 years or more (really, the stuff basically never goes bad).
Homemade Vanilla Extract
- 6 to 10 vanilla beans*, split
- 2 cups / 470 ml vodka or other alcohol
- Split vanilla beans and scrape out seeds. You can also use empty pods leftover from other recipes (though you'll need more beans to make an equal strength extract). Cut pods into smaller pieces if desired.
- Place beans into a glass jar or bottle. Fill with alcohol and seal with an airtight lid. Give it a good shake or two to evenly distribute the vanilla.
- Store jars in a cool dark place, gently shaking the mixture here and there to ensure even distribution. For best results, allow to steep for at least two months, if not longer. The extract will get better with age.
- Strain out solids prior to using. You can also top off the bottle with more alcohol as you use it, and add more beans whenever you have some leftover. Occasionally you may also want to strain out the old vanilla beans and replace them with fresh beans.
- * Using more beans will yield a stronger extract in shorter amount of time. You can also use split pods leftover from other recipes (rinse the pod if it’s been steeped in cream, for example), once you’ve scraped out the seeds for your other recipe, simply cut up the empty pod and add it to your extract.
Free Printable Vanilla Labels
Homemade vanilla extract makes for a perfect homemade edible gift, and having gorgeously designed labels makes them all the more special.
I’ve designed a set of versatile color labels. There are two options in the file, one with different varietals (Tonga, Madagascar, Tahitian, Bourbon, and Mexican). The second page of labels is more generic homemade vanilla extract (so if you’re like me and you just pop used beans into your jars willy nilly no matter what variety they happen to be) that are versatile no matter what kind of beans you use.
Labels include space to add the bottled on date as well as your name so your gift recipients will remember who gifted them such a lovely and useful treat.
I’ve also just added a new editable version of this printable, editable in Canva (all you need is a free account!) While the fonts are slightly different, you can customize the label to fit your exact preferences, as well as add your name and bottled on date instead of having to hand-write them.
Free PDF Download
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Editable Canva Template
Want to customize these labels to suit your exact needs? Buy the editable Canva template and you can do just that!