"Vanilla" is anything but plain! The aroma of these strange brown beans mystified the first European explorers of what is now Mexico. Vanilla continues to be one of the world's most expensive spices. This instructable demonstrates a simple process to make vanilla extract.
This instructable is, to my knowledge, the only web page with independent reviews of online vanilla vendors and pictures of their products. I hope to continue to expand the review to include all the major vendors.
Where to find what:
Introduction and Vanilla Tutorial (this page)
How to Make Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Extract Recipe.
Vanilla Review: Amadeus Trading Company.
Vanilla Review: Vanilla Products USA.
Vanilla Review: Beanilla Trading Company.
Vanilla Review: The Organic Vanilla Bean Company.
Vanilla Review: VanillaFromTahiti.com
Vanilla Review: Venui Vanilla (Vanuatu)
Madagascar Planifolia Vanilla Comparison.
Longest Vanilla Bean Award.
Why make vanilla extract?
Quality vanilla is a tasty and essential cooking ingredient. It's also very expensive. By making our own extraction we get the highest possible quality product made from the absolute best vanilla beans. Considering that the FDA regulates vanilla extract by bean weight and not bean quality, you never know what you might be getting with manufactured products. Your vanilla will be free of the artificial colors and vile corn sweeteners found in even high-quality vanilla extracts. Hand crafted vanilla extract is a great gift that will last a lifetime -- like a fine wine, vanilla extract matures with age.
What is Vanilla?
True vanilla flavor comes from the cured seed pod (bean) of the vanilla orchid ( Wikipedia ). The properly prepared pod contains vanillin and 100s of other flavor compounds. Vanilla orchids are the only orchids that produce an edible seed. The primary producers of vanilla beans are tropical areas: Madagascar, Indonesia, Papa New Guinea.
Planifolia vs Tahitensis
There are two distinct types of vanilla orchid:
1. Vanilla Planifolia beans have a strong, familiar vanilla flavor, it is often called 'Madagascar Bourbon'. Planifolia is the same variety grown in Mexico, but now synonymous with Madagascar.
2. Vanilla Tahitensis is a weaker vanilla with 'fruity, floral, and sweet' flavors created by the compound heliotropin. Tahitensis is a mutated form of a Planifolia orchid from Tahiti. Most Tahitensis vanilla is now grown in Papa New Guinea. This vanilla is favored by pastry chefs.
The Kill -- Mexican vs Bourbon (and Tahitian)
See the new site.
First World vs Third World
See the new site.
Choosing Vanilla Beans
Vocabulary for describing bean quality seems to vary a bit between vendors, which can make it more difficult to know exactly what you're getting. To cut through the confusion, this instructable uses the following quality labeling: Vanilla beans are graded A and B.
- Grade 'A' beans (also called gourmet or prime). These beans are oily and moist. Really excellent beans may have vanillin crystals on the outside, these will melt back into the bean if heated. There are about 100 to 120 grade 'A' beans (6-7 inch) per pound (7.5 per oz). The beans are visually attractive so that they can be a feature ingredient in gourmet cuisine. 30% - 35% moisture content.
- Grade 'B' beans (also called extract beans). These beans are less moist and also less attractive. But don't worry, because the flavor isn't in the water. There are about 140 to 160 grade 'B' beans (6-7 inch) per pound (10 per oz). 15% - 25% moisture content.
- Grade B beans have less water weight. You get more bean for the buck because you're not paying for water. This also means that less water ends up in your extract.
- With Grade A you pay for appearance, which doesn't matter to us.
- We get the same beans as Grade A, but at a fraction of the cost.
What is Vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is made by transferring the flavor and aromas of vanilla beans into alcohol (usually vodka, but sometimes brandy or rum). Vodka is the alcohol of choice because it has a neutral flavor. Other liquors can be used, but they contribute flavors of their own. Commercial extracts use a neutral flavored grain alcohol (vodka), but you are free to use rum, brandy, gin, whatever. I stick to vodka because I can always add a hint of brandy or rum directly to a dish.
How many beans are used per unit of alcohol? This is an easy one - its regulated by US law. Really!
From the FDA 21CFR169:
- Extract is 70 proof/35% alcohol.
- Extract contains 13.35 oz. of bean per gallon of alcohol. It seems that 13.35 oz of bean need merely to be exposed to the alcohol, not that this amount of matter is extracted/dissolved into the alcohol, I await confirmation and will update accordingly.
- Moisture content of beans should be under 25%, more beans are required when moisture is higher.
- Remember, the quality of the beans doesn't matter for these regulated proportions, only the weight
"13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of extract is single fold (single strength) vanilla extract. As most vanilla beans are ~120/pound or 7.5 beans per ounce of weight. A gallon of extract is 128 fluid ounces, so that would mean ~98 beans per gallon or SIX (6) whole beans to make ONE cup (8 fluid ounces) of single fold vanilla extract...Anyone who tells you any differently is just teaching you how to make vanilla flavored booze." kieth - http://tipnut.com/homemade-vanilla-extract/
Take that point to heart! Recipes on the web are all over the place: some call for 1 bean in a gallon of brandy left for one year, others call for 2-4 beans per cup with 1-6 months soak time. Few come anywhere close to reaching the 'legal' requirements of an extract.
Best Extract Alcohol Concentration
A bit of definitive info on the best concentration of alcohol for extracting beans:
- Glenn at Amadeus Trading says that his company starts off with a relatively "pure" alcohol and then adds water to get it to 35%.
- According to this great lit review put together by Garth at Heilala Vanilla, a 1995 study showed that 10% more vanillin was extracted at 47.5% ethanol than 95% ethanol (pdf page 16).
Vanilla beans grow in tropical locales where they require exotic hand pollination and extended curing. This invites wine-culture snobbery and claims of terroir. Dealers and fans alike make whimsical and sometimes contradictory claims about vanillas from various regions. Take this with a grain of salt, as even food critics usually preferred imitation vanilla in a blind taste test.
Is there a huge difference? You'll have to find out for yourself, but you can get an idea by looking through the reviews in this instructable. I was skeptical at first, but I hope the reviews show that there is a big difference in the characteristics of vanilla beans from different growing regions -- and not just in smell.
Below is a list of countries that actively market 'gourmet' vanilla. There are major vanilla producing countries not included on this list. Wikipedia says China produces 10% of the world's vanilla, but I can't find anywhere to buy it.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) - Most Tahitensis vanilla is grown in PNG.
Tahiti - Only a tiny amount of vanilla is actually produced on Tahiti. Check out the new review of vanillafromtahiti.com.
Madagascar - The 'classic' vanilla.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) - A lesser known, but major, vanilla producer.
Indonesia - Said to be of poor flavor and particularly suited to baking.
Mexico - Though vanilla originated in Mexico, it is no longer grown in significant quantities. Mexican vanilla beans are very expensive. Cheap tourist vanilla almost certainly isn't vanilla at all.
Hawaii - Vanilla is grown on Oahu and Maui in very small quantities. You might be able to buy a tiny bit from Huahua Farm on the Big Island.
Uganda - Large vanilla beans are grown in this African country.
Tonga - Some very interesting Planifolia beans are grown in this tiny Pacific island nation.
India - I'm working on adding some Indian vanilla beans to the review.
Vanuatu - Soon I'll add a review of extremely rare vanilla beans from this tiny Pacific Island nation.
Australia - Broken Nose Vanilla is a potential source of Australian vanilla beans.
Malaysia - Check back for a review of Malaysian beans.
Some vendors offer 'certified organic' or similarly labeled beans. Certified organic vanilla should be free of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Organic farming may also promote sustainable land practices that benefit the environment. If you want certified organic beans, make sure you are getting something thats truly 'certified organic'. Often beans are labeled just plain organic. As far as I can tell, the only vendors in this review that offer genuine certified organic vanilla beans are The Organic Vanilla Company and Amadeus Trading Company. If organic cultivation is important to you, go for it.
Step 1: Supplies
Gather these supplies to make your extract:
Vanilla Beans (1 oz per cup alcohol/30 grams per 250 ml alcohol)
Get the best beans you can, but don't get ripped off by outrageous prices. Search the internet and eBay for some really decent vanilla bean prices. Grade 'B' beans (also called "extract grade") will give the most vanilla flavor per kilo of beans.
We could go with the FDA requirement and use about 0.8 oz beans per cup of extract, but this probably wouldn't be strong enough. Industrial vanilla extractors are orders of magnitude more efficient than our hand extraction process. We need to add more beans to get anywhere near extract concentration. I recommend a minimum of 1 oz (~8 beans) per cup, but shoot for more. Remember: professional bakers use 2-fold extracts, it can't be too strong.
The beans shown in this instructable are Amadeus Trading's Uganda Gold (tm) Vanilla beans. These beans were the obvious choice because their large size made for great pictures.
Dark Glass bottle with tight fitting cap.
Green or brown wine bottles work best. Dark glass protects the extract from direct sun exposure. Make sure you have a tight-fitting cork or lid that can be easily removed (you cannot resist smelling it during the extraction!).
Vodka (37.5-40% alcohol, 75-80 proof)
Consider a decent quality vodka, as you could have this extract for 10 years or more. A super high proof (more alcohol) vodka might not extract as much vanilla goodness ( reference ). Commercial vanilla extracts are 35% alcohol, by law. Leave some room in your calculations for the water that the beans will contribute.
Sharp knife and cutting board
To slice the beans in half and remove the seeds.
Steamer or pot of boiling water
Though optional, I always sterilize any implements that will come into contact with the bean or extract. Any yuck will sit in the bottle and contribute off-flavors for years. Why risk it? Steam or boil a clean bottle, cap, and knife for 30 minutes just prior to use.
Clean work area
Its probably not a huge concern, but you don't want strong odors floating around when you prepare extract. Unless you intend for your vanilla to have smoked salmon undertones.
Some, but not a lot. Our vanilla can be used after 4 weeks, even though the extraction will continue for 6 months. When the extraction is finished the vanilla will continue to mature indefinitely. It's like having a fine wine that can be sampled continuously as it ages over decades.