“Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. C.S. Lewis
Ever wondered exactly how vanilla is made? Or what’s the difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla? Or where vanilla beans come from? Or would you get a vanilla tree at some point if you planted a vanilla bean? Or is there really bourbon in boubon vanilla? Or why vanilla beans are so darn expensive? Or why it smells so good but tastes so awful if you taste it on its own?
Well, maybe you haven’t, but I sure have. Vanilla beans grow on a viney orchid called Vanilla Planifolia. In my research I discovered that while there are over 11o varieties of orchids, only this one produces an edible fruit. Interestingly, the plant itself can cause skin irritation if handled. Most vanilla is grown in Mexico, Madagascar, Turkey, French Polynesia, Tahiti – you get the idea.
Vanilla that’s grown in Madagascar is called Bourbon vanilla and it doesn’t actually have any bourbon in it. Vanilla grown in Tahiti is called Tahitian vanilla and it doesn’t actually have any Tahitian in it (gotcha!) but it does have a fruity flavor. Apparently Bourbon vanilla is considered to be the most flavorful. The beans or fruit grow in clusters on the plant – they remind me of green beans.
This picture came from http://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/4955784145/
All vanilla comes from the same type of plant – the differences in flavor come from the various growing conditions. Because (unlike green beans), each plant produces a limited amount of fruit, and because processing is time consuming and complicated, vanilla beans are expensive.
And, you while you can’t grow a vanilla tree, you could technically grow a vanilla orchid if you get some non-processed seeds and you have the right growing conditions. But orchids are notoriously difficult not only to grow but to keep alive, and I really don’t think they’d flourish in a state where we can still get snow in May.
Imitation vanilla is grown on imitation orchids made of plastic. Okay, that’s a lie. But imitation vanilla is made by soaking wood in alcohol to extract a vanilla-like flavoring and then it is chemically treated to make it taste like vanilla. YUM! But, it’s very interesting because America’s Test Kitchen did a taste test comparing imitation vanilla to pure vanilla extract, and the imitation won! Personally, I think it’s because most recipes call for a small amount of vanilla and the imitation vanilla has a stronger flavor than pure vanilla extract.
I never did discover why it smells so good but tastes so awful on its own, yet adds such a heavenly flavor to baked goods. I did know that vanilla is used frequently in aromatherapy – but I didn’t know if was used to treat things like depression and sleeplessness. Anyone remember the movie Michael with John Travolta? People would sniff him and say he smelled like cookies – I imagine it was the vanilla they were smelling. By the way, if you haven’t seen this movie you should, it’s delightful.
You may wonder “why this sudden interest in vanilla”? Well, I’m here to tell you, this isn’t a sudden interest – I’ve always loved vanilla. And I’m going to share a little secret with you. When you’re making cookies, and the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of vanilla, add 1 TABLESPOON instead. That’s right. Triple it. Heck, quadruple it if you want. You will not believe the difference it makes in your baking.
Here’s an example. I’ve talked about my Uncle Dave quite a bit. He’s very very important to me. So, I like to make him good things to eat – my way of showing love. One day I asked him what type of cookies I could make him. I was pretty sure he’d ask for one of my most sought after recipes, but instead, he asked me to make oatmeal RAISIN cookies. Generally I look forward to sampling my baking, but this was going to be pure horror and drudgery. I told my husband that I had to make oatmeal raisin cookies – and that traitor responded by telling me that he loved them too! So, I did no research, didn’t try to tweak any recipes, nothing. I just used the recipe on the oatmeal box. After all, I was ruining the cookies anyway by putting raisins in them. But, I did triple the vanilla as this is my normal procedure. To my great surprise, Jim and Dave both tried the cookies (at separate times), and both exclaimed, “These are the best oatmeal raisin cookies I’ve ever had!”. The only explanation is the vanilla! Please trust me on this, you won’t be sorry. Oh, there is one more tip. Never ever overbeat the mixture after you add the dry igredients because it will cause the gluten in the flour to break and make your cookies tough (gross).
But I digress (bet that’s a big surprise). I have decided to make my own vanilla. This has a four-fold purpose. One – I like trying to make things from scratch, then I know exactly what’s in them. Two – vanilla is very expensive and maybe I can save some money. Three – I really like trying new things. Four – if it turns out, I will have some awesome Christmas gifts for my family and friends.
I bought some vanilla beans from Amazon and I have to say I am always impressed with the level of service and the products I receive from them. The cost for 1/2 pound of beans was right around $27.00 and I got 66 beans.. Then I had to figure out some way to bottle the vanilla once I get it made – so of course I went back to one of my favorite companies – Specialty Bottle. You can find their link on my home page – check them out – they are wonderful! I found some darling little 4 ounce bottles for 67¢ apiece! You can’t beat that with a stick. Vanilla extract is made with ethyl alcohol which draws out the flavoring. I thought of using Everclear but apparently that would be overkill, so I decided to use Vodka, which seems by general consensus to be the best choice. It needs to be about 80 proof because you need 35% to 40% alcohol. I need to warn you, this is going to be a rather lengthy process, but I believe it’s true that anything worth having is worth waiting for. I’m going to let this steep for 5 or 6 months.
Let’s talk about cost. Premium vanilla extracts can be found for between $9 and $13 per 4 ounce bottle on line, not including shipping, and can be much more expensive if purchased at the local grocery store. I’m going to use 5 vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of alcohol, and I paid about 41¢ per bean. The bottles were about 86¢ apiece including shipping. I bought a 1.75 liter of Smirnoff vodka for $23.84, which gives me about 7-3/4 cups. This works out to $4.51 per 8 ounce bottle of vanilla. Granted, this doesn’t include the cost of the ink and labels, but let’s assume that’s about 10¢ per label. Call it $4.65. We’re still at least $4 per bottle less than buying it already made, and I can be sure there are no additives (lots of companies add sugar to their vanilla extract). I think I’m on the right track!
And it’s a simple process that has the added advantage of making your hands smell delicious.
You need all these ingredients!
First, I took 3/4 cup of the vodka out of the bottle, leaving about 7 cups in the bottle. Then I counted out 35 vanilla beans.
35 beans total for 7 cups of vodka. I split each bean and scraped out the seeds. The scraped pods and the seeds go into the vodka bottle.
Smells so wonderful!
And here it is. Now, the next step is to shake it every day for the first week or so. Then shake it once a week or so. This is not a quick process – it won’t be ready for 4 to 6 months – but that’ll be just in time for Christmas!
80 proof vodka. You can also use rum or bourbon, but vodka doesn’t add additional flavor.
5 vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of vodka, split and scraped.
Mix vanilla beans and seeds into vodka. Store in a dark place and shake every day for about 1 week. Then shake once a week for the next few weeks. Let steep for at least 4 months.
After you pour off your vanilla, you can make another batch by adding in more vodka. The second batch will take longer. You can also dry the beans out and make vanilla sugar by adding 1 bean to 2 cups of sugar and letting it steep for a couple of weeks. The sugar will become infused with vanilla and is a lovely addition to your baked goods, coffee, and other treats (like cinnamon toast!).