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Over the holidays, I saw an episode of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa (Food Network US and UK) in which she said that she makes her own vanilla extract.

It hadn’t seemed possible (to me, anyway, although I’ve since found many recipes on the Internet) but there she was with a jar normally used for homemade preserves which was filled with vanilla beans and vodka.

I was able to source vanilla beans from Madagascar for a decent price online and bought some drinkable vodka at the end of January. By the end of March, I had a jar of highly flavoursome vanilla extract.

Vanilla is a type of orchid. The photo above — credit to Delicious Foods in Australia — shows two beautiful flowers from one of 110 species of vanilla orchid. Barbara Rolek’s article on About.com gives more information about how the plant’s beans are processed and how precious they are to chefs and cooks all over the world.

So often, home cooks and foodies debate the correct terminology for vanilla used in cooking. Is it extract or essence? Reference.com says (emphases mine):

Vanilla essence and vanilla extract are not the same thing. Although both typically used in cooking and baking, vanilla essence is imitation vanilla. Vanilla extract is actually made from vanilla plants. Vanilla essence is an inexpensive substitute for pure vanilla extract and is made from chemical combinations. However, vanilla essence is not as full-flavored of complex and pure vanilla extract.

My recipe for vanilla extract follows. However, a few notes beforehand:

1/ Taste your shop bought vanilla extract first to get an idea of what you expect from your homemade product. A drop of extract will do. Many people are surprised to find out how bitter and astringent it tastes.

2/ Online merchants have good deals on vanilla beans in bulk. It is useful to shop around and read the customer reviews. I bought 20 beans for a little over £8. I use beans from Madagascar — a personal preference — but Tahiti, Indonesia and Mexico also produce vanilla. Some people prefer the tastes from those countries.

3/ Vodka is a better neutral spirit than gin, rum or brandy. That said, depending on the brand, normal vodka — not the flavoured kind — can still have a distinctive taste. If there is a brand you would definitely not buy to drink with tonic, refrain from buying it for vanilla extract.

4/ Patience is essential. It takes at least six — preferably eight — weeks for your homemade extract to mature. Be sure to shake the jar once or twice a week to keep the vanilla seeds interacting with the vodka for flavour development. The colour will be brown-black.

5/ I use a sterilised 340g (12 oz) commercial jam jar with lid for my extract.

6/ Try not to top up a half empty jar with vodka and expect to get full vanilla flavour from it right away. It is better to start a second jar which you can begin using when you’re halfway through the first. That way, you get the full flavour profile at all times.

7/ Some people prefer to start each jar with a fresh set of beans rather than refilling a used jar with vodka. They split the pods open and use the seeds in a recipe. The outer pods can be dried and placed in a bowl of sugar to add flavour.

8/ Is this cheaper than buying off the shelf? For heavy vanilla users, especially those who like flavouring their coffee, yes, it is, especially if one can get a deal on the vanilla beans and/or vodka.

Homemade vanilla extract

Ingredients:

20 whole vanilla beans

30 cl (10 oz) plain vodka (approximate measure, you might need less)

Method:

1/ Cut the tips off both ends of the vanilla beans and set aside.

2/ Bunch the beans together and put them in the jar. Cut them in half, if necessary, to fit and arrange them in the jar. Add the ends from step 1.

3/ Fill the jar with vodka, covering the vanilla completely, and seal tightly with the lid.

4/ Shake well once or twice a week from six to eight weeks. Do not use it before then.

5/ One teaspoon of extract — maybe two — per recipe will suffice. Start with one teaspoon of extract and decide if you need a second.

6/ Keep the jar of extract in a dark place and shake well before using.

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