1. Buy vanilla beans: Look for a good quality vanilla bean and allow for x1 bean per 60mls of liquid, a 250ml bottle will require x4 whole beans. Buy your beans by weight, not number because if the beans are smaller than average, you don’t want to feel shorted. A 115g bag should yield enough for 2 to 4 475ml bottles of vanilla extract, depending on bean size. (My batch yielded 4 bottles, but the beans were on the small — but no less delicious — side.)
2. Get a bottle to store your extract: With a couple extras, because this makes fantastic gifts. An amber bottle will better protect the extract from light and heat, though I’ve used clear ones so that I can see how the steeping is coming along, and just store them in a dark cabinet.
3. Buy alcohol: Alcohol is used as a base for extracts because it doesn’t spoil and is easily infused with flavours. The gold standard of extracts is pure alcohol, but that’s not readily available everywhere. Instead, I use vodka, which is by definition colourless and flavourless.
4. Get to work: I use 1 whole vanilla bean for every 60ml of alcohol. So, for a 250ml bottle I use 4 whole beans, for a 350ml bottle I used 6 & for a 475ml bottle I used 8 beans. I go solely by bean count; I don’t fuss about whether the beans are bigger or smaller because bigger doesn’t necessarily mean more flavour.
Split each bean lengthwise and drop in your empty bottle. If your bottle is short, you can first cut your beans down in size so that they’ll easily fit. Then, split each bean lengthwise and drop in your empty bottle. Fill to a 1/2-inch from the top with alcohol. Give it a few shakes and place it somewhere that you’ll see it, like a cabinet, but away from the light.
5. Be patient: For the first week or two, I give the bottle a little shake — and who are we kidding, a deep inhale of admiration — whenever I see it but I’m not sure there is any scientific evidence that this speeds the process along. Within 5 days, your extract will already be a medium amber color. Most people recommend that you wait 2 weeks to use it, but I prefer to wait 4 to 6. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m all about getting the maximum impact from my investment and at 6 weeks, it’s a downright near coffee-coloured luxury unmatched by anything you can buy in the store. It is worth the wait.
6. Plan ahead for next time: When last year’s bottle dipped near the 1/3 full mark, I started this next one so it will be good to go whenever the need arises.
* On reusing beans: A common suggestion is to simply refill your vanilla bean bottle with more alcohol as the volume dips, but I couldn’t bring myself to dilute something I’d so patiently steeped to a deep intensity. I decided that I would instead reuse the “spent” beans. So, when my first bottle is full kicked, I’ll use those beans towards the next one, perhaps then only needing 6 fresh ones instead of 8. I’ll make sure to cut the new ones to a different length, so when that bottle is empty, I’ll know which ones are twice-spent and which are not.