October 19th, 2010
05:30 AM ET
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Shawna Shepherd is a producer at CNN.

There’s got to be a better way. That’s what I thought when I was standing in the supermarket aisle staring at pricey bottles of vanilla extract. This was around the holidays, when I typically bake a lot, and I was going through it quickly. I wanted quality vanilla at a reasonable price and since I couldn’t get that at the store, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Vanilla extract, a staple ingredient in most cookie and baking recipes, can be made inexpensively from home with just two ingredients.

Anyone who has a busy job or a family might scoff at the notion of making something from scratch because who has the time? As a young professional who travels a lot, I won’t take on anything that requires a lot of upkeep. But trust me, making vanilla extract requires very little time and maintenance. You will impress both baking novices and do-it-yourself enthusiasts.

It will taste just as good as the gourmet stuff you find in grocery stores or specialty markets, but it will last longer and cost much less. It is easy and doesn’t require much work. You can make a batch for yourself or take it one step further, like I did, and bottle up your homemade vanilla extract to give to friends and family.

All it takes is a jar of vanilla beans filled with vodka - place it in a dark cupboard, give it a good shake every once in a while and about eight weeks later, you have vanilla extract. The longer you keep the beans in the vodka, the better it gets. When you start getting low, just top off the vanilla extract with vodka and replenish with another vanilla bean (discard the soaked ones or better yet, scrape out the used vanilla pod and use it in a recipe).

Vanilla extract can be expensive because vanilla beans, which come from vanilla orchids, are expensive to produce. Mexico was the first country to grow vanilla beans from vanilla orchids, thanks only to a native bee that naturally pollinates the plant and produces the fruit, or vanilla pod. Mexico held a monopoly on producing vanilla beans until it was discovered that vanilla orchid flowers could be pollinated artificially. Madagascar is now the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans, but the pods continue to be grown throughout the tropics.

You can usually find Madagascar-Bourbon vanilla beans in the grocery store or food specialty stores; they're typically sold in packs of two vanilla beans. You are going to pay a much higher price in the store, up to 50 percent more than if you purchase them online, and that includes shipping. Shopping online has other benefits: you can try different varieties and you can save money if you buy in bulk.

Ina Garten wrote in one of her cookbooks that she has replenished the same jar of vanilla extract for over 20 years. Little did I know how simple it would be after I actually tried it.

Step-by-step DIY vanilla extract

  1. Use any jar with a tight lid. If you decide to use a used jar, be sure to clean and sterilize it in boiling water or else your extract will pick up other flavors like mine did when I used an old peppercorn jar!
  2. Split the vanilla beans in half using a knife. You can also use kitchen shears as long as they are clean and sterilized. Place the vanilla beans at the bottom of the jar.
  3. Pour vodka into the jar. For every vanilla bean I’d add approximately two to three ounces of vodka. In this photograph I am pouring 16 ounces of vodka in a jar with six (split) vanilla beans. No need to splurge on the expensive vodka - the cheap stuff will work just fine! If you don’t want to use vodka, you can use rum instead.
  4. Place the jar in a dark cupboard and shake it every once in a while, and eventually the vanilla seeds will loosen from the pod. Shake the jar once a week or every few weeks – whatever works for your schedule. Your vanilla extract will be ready in eight weeks, but the longer you keep the beans in the vodka, the stronger and better it gets.
  5. You can use the vanilla extract with the split beans and seeds soaking in the vodka, but it won’t look like the store-bought extract you’re used to. If you don’t mind the seeds leave them in and they’ll simply add more flavor to your recipe! But you can also filter the seeds and pod from the extract with a coffee filter (permanent gold tone coffee filters work much better than disposable coffee filters). Each time you need vanilla extract, you can filter the needed amount so the vanilla beans continue to strengthen the extract.
  6. The extract can remain in the same jar or you can transfer some extract in a smaller bottle to keep for yourself or to give to friends and family. I purchased 4-ounce bottles in bulk from an online bottling company.
  7. I decided to give my vanilla extract to friends and family as gifts around the holidays, so I personalized labels I bought at a local stationery store and printed them using a laser printer.
  8. This extract just keeps on giving! Once you start running low, simply top off your vanilla extract with more vodka and a vanilla bean.
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Filed under: Experimental • Make • Recipes


soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Jack

    What a fantastic idea. I love vanilla and I use it a lot so I'm definitely going to give this a try. The step by step instructions are well done and easy to understand. This is one recipe where patience is definitely rewarded! I wonder if this would work with cocoa beans or coffee beans? How about oranges, lemons, almonds, etc.,?

    August 8, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  2. Barbara

    I have a vanilla 'kit' that I received for a present a couple of years ago. It said to add vodka, which I did, and says to just keep topping off with more vodka as it gets low. It also says that you can keep it going like this for up to 7 years, but doesn't say anything about adding more vanilla beans. Should I consideder adding more vanilla beans, or can I just keep adding more vodka?

    August 8, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  3. Andrew

    Shawna, you stated that you could just put in another bean and add more vodka. Is it the same ratio as before?

    November 10, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Amy

    What a great idea for holiday gifts! Simple yet impressive.
    Do you have any recommendations on where to find good quality vanilla beans on line?

    November 4, 2010 at 10:29 am |
  5. TX_Jessica

    What a great idea! I really do appreciate more articles like this that can be useful for cooks at home. Thanks Shawna – I like your idea of sending them out as gifts too. :)

    October 19, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  6. Kelly

    If you use Tahitian vanilla beans, my preferred choice, do not cut the pods open. They are different from other varieties in that respect. With a Tahitian vanilla bean, you can also cut it in half, mix it in your batter and then take it out to reuse again. It flavors perfectly. I also prefer to use a dark rum like Myers instead of Vodka. I feel it adds more depth to the flavor.

    October 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  7. GuestColin

    Oh snap. Al just pwnd by Shawna. +1 internets.

    October 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  8. Abby M

    Shawna,

    I am definitely going to try this! Where did you get the small brown bottles for the gifts?

    October 19, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • Shawna

      There are a number of bottle supply companies online and after shopping around I decided to go with SKS. You have to buy in bulk though – 4oz bottles come in a 24pk, 8oz bottles come in a 12pk. Good luck!

      October 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  9. samueltx

    just go to the hispanic grocery stores and buy real vanilla cheaper than the vodka and way cheaper than extract. I buy a quart for about 4 bucks. Lasts over a year. Wife and daughter uses the bottle for about a year, then we just discard it and buy a new one.

    October 19, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • kraffty

      The cheap Mexican Vanilla is often imitation, this is quoted from Wiki.
      "Vanilla sold in tourist markets around Mexico is sometimes not actual vanilla extract, but is mixed with an extract of the tonka bean, which contains coumarin. Tonka bean extract smells and tastes like vanilla, but coumarin has been shown to cause liver damage in lab animals and is banned in food in the US by the Food and Drug Administration.[15]"

      October 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  10. Valerie

    Wow! How simple! Thank you Shawna for sharing! It never occured to me how easy it is to make, and buying extract at the store is pretty costly, for such a small bottle. I am going to try this!!!

    October 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  11. Chris

    Use bourbon instead of vodka.

    October 19, 2010 at 10:28 am |
    • Patty

      Really? How does that affect the flavor for cooking?

      October 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  12. Al

    Why is the author making a big deal about sterilizing the jar? You're about to fill it with VODKA. Vodka contains more than enough alcohol to disinfect the jar and its contents.

    October 19, 2010 at 10:24 am |
    • Shawna

      Because the first time I tried this I used a jar that used to have peppercorns in it and after cleaning it a few times the vanilla extract still picked up the peppercorn flavor.

      October 19, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  13. Josh

    Want it to be even easier? Use the glass bottle that your vodka comes in as your jar – just add vanilla beans and re-seal the lid tightly.

    October 19, 2010 at 9:42 am |
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