Thursday, September 21, 2006

Homemade Vanilla

Kevin and I have been working on a really cool little project at home! We’ve decided to make homemade vanilla extract, bottle it in 4 ounce amber bottles and give it away as Christmas gifts. It’s very easy to make and, because vanilla, really GOOD vanilla, is so expensive, it will make a really special gift for our family and friends. I've listed the 'how-to' below, but I've also included some information I found - back ground information on vanilla; the different regions it comes from, how the different regions vary, and how those differences influence the flavor of the vanilla beans. I think it's really interesting. Who knew?!

Vanilla is so expensive because it is the world's most labor-intensive crop. It can take up to three years for a fruit-bearing flower to appear and the beans must remain on the vine for at least nine months to fully develop before it can be harvested and cured. On top of that, most of the flowers are hand-pollinated.

The only edible fruit from the orchid family, the Totonaco Indians of Mexico first cultivated the vanilla bean. Later, through the ancient tradition known as "divide and conquer," the secrets of the vanilla bean soon landed in the hands of the Aztecs, and then the Spaniards, who later spilled the secret to the rest of Europe. Interestingly, when the beans are harvested they are green and bear no flavor or fragrance and first must be cured. Vanilla beans are cured by being treated with hot water or heat and placed in the sun to dry for weeks and months, until they are 20 percent of their orginal size before being sorted and allowed to rest for a few more weeks.

Vanilla beans are cultivated in four regions, which produce the world's supply of vanilla: Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti. The four regions, like wine or coffee, produce four different vanillas. Madagascar's vanilla is often called bourbon vanilla for the region it is grown in and is described as creamy, sweet, smooth and mellow. Madagascar is the world's largest producer of vanilla and it is also considered the highest quality. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of the world's vanilla and is described as woody and pungent. Mexico's vanilla is described as creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy. Mexican vanilla is the grandparent to bourbon vanilla and they are essentially the same. Tahiti's vanilla is from a different vanilla orchid and is described as flowery, fruity , anisic and smooth. It orginates from the Mexican stock as well, but has been mutated over the last 50 years into its own species.

Americans are the leading consumers of vanilla (followed by France) and demand a whopping 2200 tons of vanilla beans a year. We use it in everything from vanilla ice cream to perfumes and medicine.

Partly because of cost, partly because of intrigue, I have wanted to make my own vanilla extract for several years. Homemade vanilla extract is very easy and involves just three ingredients: vanilla beans, vodka, and time.

We found a great deal on vanilla beans at We purchased 15 Madagascar vanilla beans for $22.04 (what's up with the 4 cents, though? lol). I ordered the beans on a Friday afternoon, and they arrived on our doorstep on Monday. Amazing!

Over the weekend, we bought a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka at Pavilions for $12.00. Someone told me to use 'cheap' vodka because it absorbs the flavor of the vanilla beans much better and faster than vodka of higher quality. We slit two and half beans lengthwise and popped them into the bottle (we put the other half bean in our sugar to make vanilla sugar!). The only requirement now is to shake the bottle vigorously every day for at least 30 seconds and leave it in a cool dark place. At the end of 30 days, viola! - homemade vanilla extract! The longer you leave the mixture, the more intense the flavor will become. We decided that since we have so many vanilla beans, we're going to start another bottle over the weekend. That way we have plenty to give away, and plenty to keep. With holiday baking right around the corner, this will be perfect!

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