Making vanilla extract is easy in the sense that it takes vanilla beans, vodka, and time...
After much research, I ordered my beans through eBay from vanillaproducts (great info in their listings if you click on one of their items). They also have a website http://www.vanillaproductsusa.com/ . From my research, they are noted for the best prices with quality beans. (Another notable seller is http://www.amadeusvanillabeans.com/ .) This photo shows how they arrived. They were in vacuum sealed bags. I purchased 1 pound of Tahitian Organic Extract Beans 5-7" for $12.98 and 1/2 pound of Madagascar Bourbon Extract 6-7" beans for $15.59. Vanillaproducts is running a sale right now, so they gifted me an extra 1/4 pound of Tahitian Grade A Beans 5-6". The grade A were nice, but the consensus from the companies is save your money. Both agree that the drier bean works well for extract... so grade B beans will work out just fine. While I am thinking about it, another great site to check out is http://www.vanillareview.com/ . It has lots of great info too.
The Tahitian beans smelled very fruity. It reminded me of a new bottle of children's chewable vitamins (odd the things that the mind thinks of isn't it?) with a hint of tobacco. They were a little drier of a bean than the Madagascar but still very pliable. A few were a challenge to cut, but most cut easily and were full of exposed seeds.
The Madagascar beans were more oily of a bean. They had the familiar vanilla smell with a hint of tobacco (which I am sure is due to being a dried bean). I found them easy to cut and loaded with seeds.
Here is the first step - splitting the vanilla bean in two. (I am sorry it is hard to see. It is the top bean that is split.) The little flecks on the plastic are tiny seeds. This may sound crazy, but a vanilla bean reminds me of a mini skinny dried out banana. Once you start your cut right under the hooked end, the knife naturally follows the fibers to the bottom. (You might need to hold the bean on your way down.)
Some recipes call for scraping out the caviar (or seeds), but the majority of recipes do not. I found that with both variety of beans some of the seeds were falling out, while others were nicely exposed in their pod. Since they will be covered with alcohol and shaken on occasion, I didn't see a need to scrape.
Here is another decision one must make. Some cooks add the vanilla bean whole, while others chop the beans into segments. I found, while working on the first bottle, that it would work better to chop up the vanilla bean. I didn't want any of the bean to be exposed to the air in the bottle and figured it could only help with the flavor.
**Another tip from Amadeus Vanilla Beans... buy the cheapest vodka. The more expensive brands add their own touch of flavor. This is not needed when vanilla is the only flavor that is wanted. So, why not save some money? ;) ***
So the golden question is the ratio of vanilla beans to vodka. Well if you jump to the above websites, they will tell you it is regulated by the federal government. The only problem is that homemakers are working with far less advanced methods of extraction, so the leading sites seem to agree on 1/4 pound of beans to a quart. If you want a strong extract... add more. Most chefs work with 2x vanilla. This is a case of the more the merrier!
Contrary to how this looks, I haven't touched a mixed drink in about...let me see...at least... oh, one kid ago. I actually had the Smirnoff bottle (that was gifted to us), but the seal was broken (by my brother in law 18 years ago!). It was way back in the pantry, and I dumped it out to have the bottle. My husband insisted the liquor was still okay, but it had evaporated and had white flecks in it. Hubby wasn't willing to take a drink... so down the drain it went! Off to the store I went to buy my new vodka. Talk about being out of my element, but I managed to find a few of the cheaper bottles. ;)
My two bottles (I am planning to gift vanilla to friends!) that I purchased were 1.75L (roughly 7 1/2 cups). (If you start out with the smaller bottles that are 750ml (roughly 3 1/4 cups), you will have to remove 1/4 cup to get your beans in and still have some room for shaking. If your frugal, store the extra in a small mason jar and add after extraction process is done.) I put three cups into the extra glass bottles that I had and left the remainder in their original large plastic bottles. I might change out the plastic bottles for sterilized ball jars to conserve on space. They need to be kept from light (or made in dark glass) so to the back depths of my pantry they went. The bottles get shaken every day for a week, and a few times a week after that. The vanilla should be good enough to use in 4-6 weeks but the longer the better. The Vanilla Review stated that full strength (and slight syrup consistency) is achieved after 6 months, and at that time, the beans can be strained out. The vanilla can then be put in their final jars. A fresh bean or two can be added at that time to dress it up for shelf appeal or gifting! ***Shelf life, due to the liquor is stated to be indefinitely.***
The alcohol used in the extract must be 35% to 40% in volume. Vodka is 40% making it 80 proof. Rum, Brandy, and Whisky fall in this category also. Vodka is the go to guy do to its lack of flavor. If one wants vanilla with a twist, there have been favorable reviews with Rum. I had a bottle of Canadian Whisky that was gifted to us and never opened. It smells rather medicinie to me, but I added some beans to see what would happen. The bottle would have never been used for anything else, so why not? :)
So should I bore you with my money crunching?? Here we go... With shipping and over buying ;) (larger amounts are cheaper, so share with a friend or in my case my sister!), my total cost for beans was $34.00 for 1 3/4 pounds. I purchased 2 bottles of vodka in 1.75L bottles (this was before I read the Amadeus hint) for $26.17 (there were even cheaper bottles on sale for $9.49 each, so I could have saved another $4.50... oh well!). So roughly speaking it will cost me $17.95 for a liter of vanilla. So on the rounding side, if I get even 7 cups of vanilla that equals to 56 ounces. The shelf price would be $83.72 before tax. (And lets face it, I am sure this will be a more potent grade as I threw in a few more beans than asked for.) So even making vanilla using the smaller bottle of vodka with a smaller batch of beans, a homemaker can save some serious money while getting a healthier vanilla. ***Just a note worthy fact... the store brands contain sweeteners to help cut the smell of the alcohol and artificial colors.***
Kind of a lengthy post, but as my hubby will attest, I research my purchases and experiments to the ends of the earth. (This was actually the shortened version!) If you have some free time and would like to give this a try, check out the other sites for additional info. I will add updates to my vanilla in future posts. I will also be making some vanilla sugar that I will post about later. (This post is long enough!)
Working with vanilla beans has been exciting. The amount of money saved is (or hopefully will be ;) ) incredible, the product will be of better quality (minus the added preservatives!) , and the smell in the kitchen is heaven!! :)