You'll only need two ingredients.
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Whether you're making a humble batch of cookies or a complex layer cake, vanilla extract likely appears on the list of required ingredients. The pantry staple is commonly used in small amounts, but it imparts a rich flavor that most desserts wouldn't be the same without. "Vanilla is one of the most important ingredients to make sure your dish tastes great," says Branin Lane, global vice president of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. "It not only provides delicious flavor but enhances and balances the flavors of all the ingredients." Despite being a baking necessity, pure vanilla extract isn't cheap. "Making your own is a resourceful way to get the most mileage from any used vanilla beans," says Odette Williams, author of Simple Cake ($13.99, amazon.com). And you only need two ingredients to make vanilla extract at home: vanilla beans and vodka. Ahead, we're explaining the basics behind making this timeless ingredient to use it in your own baked goods or gift it to loved ones. 

How to Make Vanilla Extract 

Vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans that have been split open in clear alcohol—think vodka or white rum—and aging the mixture in a cool, dark place. Williams says the process is easy. "Fill a small mason jar with vodka, slice three to four vanilla beans down the center, submerge them in the vodka, seal and shake to combine," she explains. Our homemade vanilla extract recipe recommends using one cup of vodka for every two vanilla beans. The mixture will need time to infuse, so you can't use it immediately. "The longer it can infuse the better," Williams says. "It needs about a month or two to really take in the flavor. In six months, it'll be dark, aromatic, and smell phenomenal."  

Vanilla Bean Paste
Credit: Lennart Weibull

How to Store Vanilla Extract 

Storing your extract correctly will extend its shelf life. As a general rule, it should be kept in an airtight container and stored in a room temperature cabinet. Lane says vanilla extract should never be kept in the refrigerator or freezer, as this will speed up the natural separation of the vanilla essence from the liquid base in the extract and result in rapid mold growth. 

Types of Vanilla Beans

You can use any type of vanilla beans when making your extract, but Lane notes that the "origin of the vanilla bean will impact the flavor profile of the vanilla, similar to how grapes and coffee beans from different parts of the world produce different flavors of wine and coffee." Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans impart a sweet, creamy flavor, while Tahitian vanilla beans deliver floral and fruity notes. Lane says Mexican vanilla beans are best for pairing with chocolate and warm spices, noting that this variety provides a creamy and spicy-sweet flavor with clove and nutmeg afternotes. 

Is It Better to Make or Buy Vanilla Extract? 

Buying pure vanilla extract from the grocery store can be expensive. If you have access to your own vanilla beans and vodka, it may be more cost effective to make it yourself, as you can continuously add to it over time. It is possible to find varieties offered at a lower price point, but they might contain ingredients other than just vanilla beans and alcohol. According to the Food and Drug Administration, pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and be 35 percent alcohol. Some budget-friendly offerings may have additional ingredients like sugar, corn syrup, or dextrose. Making your own pure vanilla extract is a great way to ensure you're using quality ingredients while simultaneously getting the most mileage out of your extract.

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