Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to make pure vanilla extract [tips from our tour of the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, Hawaii]


3 glistening vanilla beans from Hawaiian Vanilla Company

We learned how to make vanilla extract while we were in Hawaii and it is so easy, it would be crazy not to share. The only caveat is finding good quality vanilla beans worthy of having its flavors extracted from. Preferably sun dried as it boasts more flavor compounds than chemically-dried or oven-dried beans. Everything I am going to share below is from mental note-taking during our visit to a vanilla farm in Hawaii. If anything I say here is not accurate, please let me know :)

We purchased our vanilla beans at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company on the Big Island. These lovely beans were not cheap and at first I thought, hmm, I can buy way cheaper beans back in New York so I will just leave these $10 beans alone. Well, this was before they subtly sold it by simply telling us how they farm the beans. While eating our delicious vanilla infused lunch (vanilla in everything! Lemonade, ice tea, shrimp, chicken burger, buns, salads, fries, ice cream!! O mee gawd I was in heaven!), we learned about cooking with vanilla but also, some aspect of vanilla farming. Suddenly, the price of those beans were justified. It is the second most expensive spice after saffron mostly because it is so labor intensive to grow them. They hand pollinate every goddarn vanilla orchid, hand pick them and then the beans are cured and sun dried for over 4 months!

Here are the three easy steps to making vanilla extract and it can last you like, forever and save you a lot of money especially if you bake a lot! We certainly do NOT bake a lot so we hope we will be able to bottle these up and give them as gifts one day! It is hot commodity!

1. Split your vanilla beans lengthwise with a knife. Cut through the center (we didn't do that but it should be okay). We used 3 beans in total. I have 3 more beans.

Sundried vanilla beans are pliable and moist. You can roll them around your fingers easily. The beans are covered in a natural oil which you will not find on chemically/oven dried beans. Sun drying vanilla beans help retain vanillin the best which means more flavor!  

2. Place beans in a 12-ounce bottle or any size bottle depending on how many beans you got.

3. Add vodka (use about 4 oz of vodka per bean) to the beans, shake and store in cool dark place. 

We picked the cheapest and most tasteless vodka at the liquor store for $8 (Alexis Vodka). 

Tasteless makes it a good candidate for making vanilla extract even though Smirnoff (approx. $18/1 L bottle) seems like a popular choice. It turns out our bottom shelf vodka is almost indistinguishable from a "premium" vodka brand like Grey Goose! See this NY Post article Dave found!

The process takes about 6-9 months depending on the flavor intensity you desire. If you want to extract faster, you can use a stronger alcohol such as Everclear (95% alcohol). If you decide to use Everclear, I think we were told that the extract would be ready in 6 weeks and the extract will be very strong in alcohol and the flavor, intense. A smaller quantity than what your recipe recommends can be used. It is not necessarily the best way. Being patient may yield better tasting extract! But the bottom line is, the longer you leave your beans alone, the more intense the flavor of your extract will be.

After you attain the desired intensity (sniff it or sample!), you can remove about 1/3 of the extract from the top which you can start using. You can then top off with new vodka so you can make more extract! The wait will be shortened (3-4 months) when you do that since 3/4 of the bottle is already flavored. Make sure you don't remove the vanilla seeds fallen to the bottom because that's where the flavor is coming from! You can make up to 5 gallons with just 3 beans. The restaurant, which uses extracts all the time in their cooking has been using the same bottle for more than a decade! When the flavor de-intensifies, they just add a couple more beans and keep extracting! A small bottle of high quality vanilla extract bottle can cost upward of $20-30+ and I have seen up to $400 for 4 gallons. Our 3 beans cost about $28+ tax and $8 for the vodka. Not too shabby. And purchasing the beans straight from the source gives us a sense of security that we are using good quality organic beans. When you find cheap vanilla extracts, you have to be wary about the quality of the beans used and there may also be additives. Our extract is 100% pure for sure!

Oh and why did I just write all that when I could have just showed you this. It came with our vanilla beans...


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