How to Make Vanilla Extract
How many beans does it take?
The FDA requires 2.64 ounces of vanilla beans/bits per 750 mL (approximately 25 fluid ounces) of alcohol to define a “single fold” vanilla extract. As a group we recommend 2-3 oz of beans per 750 mL or 1 oz of beans for 1 cup of alcohol. A lovely extract can be made with slightly less beans but may take longer to come to a usable strength. Double fold vanilla is made using twice the beans to alcohol ratio and is a very deeply flavored and rich extract.
Alcohol is sold by fifths, handles, pints, gallons, and a lot of other measures. It can be confusing, especially for Beanies who haven't purchased much alcohol. Here’s a link to a chart that will help explain how many ounces of vanilla beans are needed to make extract. You can find it here.
How long does it take?
There are a lot of variables that could be a factor in when your extract will be ready. If using the basic method of just dropping beans in liquor, it will take at least 4 months and up to 18 months. The longer it sits, the better it gets.
If using a "hot method," where you gently heat the extract or warm the jars it could be ready in as little as 12 weeks, but still may take six months or longer. Shaking your jars regularly to agitate and mix the alcohol around the beans will also speed the process to some degree. Splitting open or cutting vanilla beans can also decrease the amount of extracting time required. Ultimately, the extract is "done" when you are satisfied by the flavor. Try testing a few drops in a spoonful of milk or on a sugar cube. Extract is made from alcohol and may always have an alcohol scent/flavor when tested straight. Never heat alcohol over an open flame or put it under pressure. This is not safe.
What is the best alcohol to use?
As a group we recommend 80-100 proof alcohol, which is the same as 40%-50% alcohol by volume. You should never use less than 70 proof (or 35% alcohol by volume), and it is not recommended to use higher than 100-120 proof. If you choose to use high-proof Everclear, you will need to dilute it with distilled water or you may end up with crunchy dried out beans. For a non-alcoholic extract, you can use food-grade glycerin. There are recipes in the files section on Indri's Vanilla Bean Group Facebook page.
Sara Fifield Anderson made a clever flow chart to help Beanies decide what kind of alcohol to use for making vanilla extract. It is especially helpful for those who do not drink or are not familiar with the nuances of different spirits. The chart and other resources are in the “files” section of the Facebook Group, or you can find it here.
Can I mix bean types or alcohol in my extract?
Sure! Your creativity is your only limit in mixing beans or mixing alcohol bases. As long as you keep your alcohol at 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume, the sky's the limit. Mixed extracts will often have a greater range and depth of flavor as the different beans each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some suggest extracting the beans separately at first and mixing at the end, but there really is no “wrong” way to do it.
My extract still tastes/smells boozy - what's wrong?
Extract is made from alcohol and will always be "alcohol" despite having vanilla compounds extracted into the alcohol. If the extract is tasted straight from the bottle, it will very likely have a strong alcohol flavor. The alcohol may come through more strongly in extracts made with fewer beans (single fold) and in extracts made with dark or strong alcohols (like bourbon or dark rum). Try tasting a few drops of extract mixed with a spoonful of milk or whipped cream or a few drops on a sugar cube to get a truer sense of the extract flavor. If you are still getting too much alcohol flavor, try letting the extract sit longer, add more beans or consider using an oak finishing block.