Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Complexity of Vanilla

Today's process is perhaps one of the easiest I will include on this blog, and may be well known already to the resourceful doughletarian.  In case it is not, I will share the wonderful, complex knowledge of the vanilla bean and its natural partner, vanilla extract.  

Vanilla extract is straight up expensive (if you buy the real stuff with fancy Madagascar beans and such), and straight up disgusting (if you buy the imitation stuff).  Please don't purchase either one!  The first is quite expensive for a paltry amount - and as you will soon see, is very easy to replicate (and even supersede) at home.  The second is a true prolefood - someone, a few years ago, realized that the complexity embodied within a vanilla bean could be dumbed down to a single aromatic, vanillin.  If you use imitation vanilla, using the real stuff will be something akin to an experience of mine:
When I was in fifth grade, I always squinted and could never see the blackboard.  Then, one day I failed an eye test at the doctor.  I needed corrective lenses.  However, I felt very stupid wearing glasses, so I never did.  I have no idea how I managed to pass 5th - 8th grade when I more or less had serious trouble seeing the board on a daily basis.  Sometimes, I would curl my first finger into a tiny opening, and then I could read it without too much trouble.  However, in 9th grade I was taking Latin and soon realized that I was in serious trouble and that my finger-monocle was no longer adequate.  So, I got a new prescription, sucked it up and realized that I was a total nerd with or without glasses (I was taking Latin in 9th grade for God's sake).  When I put the new glasses on, the whole world was suddenly so detailed and visible that I was nearly overwhelmed for two days straight.  
That is more or less what you will experience.

Complex Vanilla
- 2 or 3 or more vanilla beans (depending on how much you'll be making)
- Alcohol of some persuasion
- A jar with a good lid *
I want to shy away from the nomenclature of "vanilla extract," because extraction clouds what you are actually doing here, which is really a "vanilla absorption."  I suppose you are extracting some essential oils from your beans, but I like precise classification and "extract" just doesn't achieve such.

So, the process is really quite easy - take your vanilla beans and split them lengthwise.  Some folks like to give them a scrape, but this seems much too violent and might really dint the bean, keeping it from finding its true self.  Now, place them in your jar, and cover with your alcohol of choice.

A word on the alcohol.  Some folks swear by bourbon and will insist that it is the only way to do a correct vanilla absorption.  You can use whatever you would like in a creative but restrained manner.  As a general rule, you'll want something close to 40% ABV (80 proof), preferably higher, as the ethanol is really doing the work here.  If you prefer an extract that possesses a cleaner, basic, vanilla flavour, use vodka.  Rum, bourbon, or whiskey - as should be evident - bring their own flavours to the table, and thus result in a kind of admixture of  flavours that can both be exciting, as well as distracting.  Don't use gin.  Also, these don't have to be pricey, though I might take a step up from the Mr. Boston or Dubra varietals.  These can really harsh your complex vanilla's mellow.  

Now, just give your absorption some time in a dark place, for at least a series of weeks prior to using.  Some folks take their beans out of the extract after this time, but I prefer to leave them in, as the flavours just grow more and more complex, I have a batch that is nearly three years in the making that I used the other day.  Even though I make my own, I still had one of those "glasses on" experiences from it.

* It would be best to find a darkly-tinted jar, like brown or blue glass.  Light is not friendly to absorptions, and really dint the flavour.  Keep an eye out at antique stores.  Two or three beans will be good for a pint or so.


  1. I love this post. I've intended to make my own vanilla for a couple years now. I expect that for some people, just learning you can do so (and so easily) is a "glasses on" experience in itself!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! That is why I don't like 'vanilla extract' - it makes people think that they need some kind of alchemical equipment to undertake the process.