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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract is probably one of the most often used baking staples out there. Along with flour, sugar, butter, salt, baking soda and baking powder, vanilla is essential to have in your kitchen if you want to do any baking. Even in recipes that you don't normally associate with a vanilla flavor probably have some vanilla extract in it, such as chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter bars, etc. There are few items that are not enhanced by its flavor and aroma.

Vanilla, interestingly enough, comes from the dried seed pod of an orchid that grows in only a few places around the world (Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Fiji). The orchid has to be pollinated by either a specific species of bee (in Mexico where it is native) or by hand. After the pod is formed, where is looks like a green bean, it is picked and dried. That is when the deep flavor we associate with vanilla is developed. Vanilla pods are the direct source of vanilla flavoring, and can be quite pricey to buy (due to their rarity, difficulty to produce, and small cultivation areas). Vanilla extract is more commonly found and used in normal baking. Vanilla extract, however, is not always what it seems to be.

If you look closely in the grocery store, many of the bottles of vanilla extract that are for sale are from artificial (FAKE)nvanilla. And even the bottles labeled as pure vanilla extract aren't exactly the highest quality product (this isn’t surprising due to the cost of vanilla pods). The best way to ensure you have high quality vanilla extract is to make it yourself.

Make extract? Sounds complicated. But it's not! To make an extract, all you have to do is steep the vanilla pods in a tasteless alcohol, such as vodka.

First of all, you need to buy yourself some fresh, fragrant vanilla pods like these:

The top link has 16 large Madagascar vanilla beans (these are a highly prized variety known for their flavor) for $11.49 (as of today).  This may seem pretty expensive, but how much did that vanilla extract in your pantry cost, $2. For ~1 oz? And for what quality? You can find vanilla pods sometimes in your local grocery store or in specialty spice stores, but many times they've been sitting on the shelf for months, sometimes years.
Do yourself, and your baking, a favor and buy a few high quality pods.

I got this package as a present from my friend Analise! (She knows me well)

Now, to make the extract: To make about 8 oz of vanilla extract you'll need about 5 pods, depending on their size. I used a large mason jar and used about 8 pods.

First, slice the pod down the length of the pod using a sharp tipped paring knife.

Look at that lusciousness

Then, just drop the pods in to the container and cover in vodka (you can use bourbon, rum, or brandy, but those alcohols will impart some of their own flavor).

Finally, store your jar in a dark cabinet for ~6-8 weeks, shaking it up once in awhile to get things moving.
If you want to speed up the waiting time, just use your knife to scrape the seeds out of the pod and toss them in along with the pod. When you use your extract you may have some of the seeds come out with it, but that's ok! Those teeny little seeds are the black specks you see in high quality vanilla ice creams.

Done and ready to use!

Another great way to make small amounts of vanilla extract is to buy a few on those little single serving vodka bottles (like you get on airplanes) and drop in one split pod into each (you'll have to cut it in half to fit it in).

Vanilla extract is a great gift to give out during the holidays. Just make it a few months in advance in a large quantity, and then divide it into smaller jars to give away.

I personally go through about 16 oz of extract a year (I'm heavy handed with it when I'm baking) but most people will probably only need a few ounces to get them by.


Now I know you're thinking, great, you made me buy 16 of these pods, but I only used up half of them in making all this extract! Now what?

Easy! The pods can be stored for a few months, just wrap them up tightly in a zip top bag and store them in a dark place. You can also make vanilla sugar by just slicing the pod and sticking it into a container of granulated sugar (you'd be amazing at how much specialty grocery stores charge for vanilla sugar) for a few weeks. Also, you can use scrapped out seeds in place of extract (it will be a stronger flavor and aroma) in cookies or cakes, or cook the pods in a custard/flan/ice cream base. If the pods are used in a custard base, just rinse them off, dry them well, and then put them into your sugar container (double use!).

I'm going to try to post a few recipes for some good vanilla uses in the next few weeks, so keep a look out and order yourself some vanilla pods in the meantime!

What are your favorite uses for vanilla??? Have you ever made your own extract, vanilla or otherwise???