So I bake a lot. This means that I go through a metric fuck ton of baking ingredients in very short spans of time. At any given point in time you could open my cupboards and find at least 10# of AP four, 4 other kinds of flour, 6# of brown sugar, 4# dark brown sugar and last time I looked I had like 6 bags of powdered sugar because apparently EVERY TIME I think I may need some I buy some. I need to stop that.
Baking ingredients are not, for the most part, expensive. I also am a hoarder of sorts, when I find a super sale I restock, or overstock more accurately. But there is one exception to the cheap rule. This ingredient is in just about every single baked good you make. You might not even taste it…but you would miss it if it weren’t there. Vanilla.
Vanilla extract is not cheap. If you think it is you are buying the wrong stuff, the bastard child Imitation Vanilla Extract. Please. Dont. It truly is garbage. There is no earthly reason to use a synthetic vanilla flavoring in anything you plan to put in your mouth. If we were making soap or something maybe, but I try to adhere to the “if I can’t pronounce it I probably shouldn’t eat it” rule.
Pure vanilla extract is pricey. Those little bottles at the grocery store? Yeah, 2oz for $4-$5…you have GOT to be joking. That will last me a minute if I am in baking mode. The larger bottles, 16oz for around $10-$12, better, but I will go through one of those in the 2 weeks leading up to Christmas. Even if I buy it commercially by the gallon its up around $30-$40 for anything worth using and closer to $60-$70 for the good stuff.
Sticking with the Pure extract is always safe, but even there I have found huge differences in strength, flavor, sweetness and general quality that bug me. I also have some more “Granola” tendencies and like to make things that I can from scratch instead of buying. So I consulted Mr Google, he is SUCH my bitch, and confirmed that my theory behind creation of an extract was correct – a flavor dissolved, in essence, in a heavy alcohol solution. Easy enough.
With a quick trip to Amazon I procured a half pound of vanilla beans, Madagascar Vanilla beans to be exact, for around $26. The other option, Tahitian, are supposed to be more delicate and rare, for what I needed delicate was not ideal. A half pound of beans is about 75 or so whole, plump, perfect vanilla beans. Next time you are at a store and see those somewhat shriveled ones in the test tube for $3 think twice about buying. I keep them stored in my freezer. My last half pound lasted almost 2 years, pulled the ones i needed out and left the rest of the bag frozen. All of them, for the record, did not go to extract; I use vanilla bean in ice cream bases, cakes and anything else I feel the urge to.
Making vanilla is pretty easy. The big bottle is cheap vodka ($15 maybe?), 80 proof, I cut the tops & bottoms off 12 whole beans and cut them completely in half and put them in the bottle; you might have to pour some off so it doesn’t over flow. Shake the bejesus out of it and put it on in your kitchen window sill. Shake it up every couple days. In 2 weeks its usable, not as pungent as what you may be used too but it will smell incredible, and at 4 weeks it will be done. At this point you can strain it through a fine sieve and, if you dont go through vanilla like I do, transfer it into brown bottles and store (for a little extra punch cut a fresh bean in half and trim to fit in your final storage bottle). I leave the extract in the liquor bottles with the beans in it, exactly as they are pictured, and put them in a dark cupboard. Both ways work, I am just not all Martha Stewart and dont care that my vanilla is in hooch bottles. I also dont care much about the straining to get the flecks out…I prefer to see them.
The 2 smaller bottles are experiments with rum. The one of the right is a regular white rum ($14) , 80 proof, and the center is 151 ($19), flammable proof, both with 8 beans each in them cut in half the same as with the vodka version. In theory, and this is strictly theory, the rum versions should be better. Rum is distilled from sugar cane, vodka from potatoes and grain. The regular rum is about 3 weeks old and it is good stuff, I’ve been using it. The 151 is less than 48 hours old and is already taking on a lot of amber colors. Im kinda geeked about the 151. There is a chance, albeit a very slim one, that I may try to make a flammable cookie. Shhhhh…dont tell my husband. He gets nervous about fire.
My vanilla has never been as dark as the stuff I used to buy, it has always been more amber in color, but flavor wise it is head & shoulders better than any extract I have ever bought. I can discern the difference in my baking, even in something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie, it is more aromatic and the flavor is more real.
Now do the math. That gigantic vodka bottle of vanilla extract cost me less that $20. This is 1/3 what I would pay for a comparable quality extract, and I know exactly whats in it. Even if you dont bake all that often its an easy process, it doesnt ever go bad and it is seriously delicious.
Next up is lemon or a citrus extract. Lemon is a favorite flavoring in baked goods, but the extracts available give that faux flavor and the acidity of juice & pieces of zest aren’t always ideal. I definitely won’t be making it by the gallon, but I’ll share when I do!