Thursday, June 14, 2012

Buffalo Bourbon Vanilla Extract

Buffalo Bourbon Extract at the beginning of the extraction process, November 2011.
Today's post about making homemade vanilla extract has been a long-time coming.  More than anything else, it is good a good reminder regarding the most important rule of food experimentation:


I did not keep good notes when I made my first batch of vanilla extract back in November and today I paid the price for my laziness.  I've spent my day chasing down credit card receipts and making phone calls to bottle distributors and mail-order vanilla importers.   I'm here to report that this is not the way you want to spend your day.

Now that the legwork of backtracking through my process is done, I can finally get to the fun part-- telling you about the process of making homemade vanilla extract.

I first learned about the basic process at The Institute of Domestic Technology.  Since that time I've done additional reading and experimenting to come up with my own recipe (which you will find at the end of this post.)

When I took the class at the Institute, the director Joseph Shuldiner had mentioned that it was possible to make vanilla using alcohols other than vodka, which is the standard.  He also warned us that we might not be satisfied with the results of using anything but the cheapest vodka because any flavors that came from the alcohol would potentially compete with the flavor extracted from the vanilla bean.

I listened to Joseph's cautionary tale, but I'm from Virginia-- bourbon country-- and I knew I had to try making vanilla extract from bourbon at least once.   Joseph's recipe was based on an extremely small batch model (one cup).  When I decided to make bourbon vanilla extract, I figured there was no use in doing it on a small scale.  I decided to think big-- especially since I was starting in late November and I figured that homemade vanilla extract would make an excellent holiday present.

I was right.  And wrong.  Now that I've made it through most of the process (except the final extraction comparison), I have a number of important tips to share-- and they are based on my own hard-won experience.  I hope you'll learn from my mistakes and plan accordingly.

1.  PLAN AHEAD.  It takes a minimum of 3 to 5 months for the alcohol to coax the vanilla flavor out from the vanilla beans.  If you want to give fully-aged vanilla extract as holiday presents (assuming the holiday season begins by mid-December), you need to start this process by mid-September AT THE LATEST. It is perhaps best to think of it as a summer project to allow time for mail-order shipping schedules and procrastination.   Thinking six months ahead is ideal since that's the time most people agree that the extraction process will be complete.  I didn't do this and ended up giving people vanilla extract with instructions "to enjoy after Valentine's Day".  It was fine in the end, but confusing to a few of the recipients.

2.  BOURBON VANILLA EXTRACT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE WE KNOW AS "BOURBON", SO NAME YOUR EXTRACT CAREFULLY.  Vanilla extract comes from the seed pod (bean) of the vanilla orchid and there are two basic types-- Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Tahitensis.   Vanilla Planifolia is grown in both Mexico and on a series of islands off the east coast of Africa-- including Madagascar and a tiny island once called the Île Bourbon.  This island, now known as Reunion Island, was colonized by the French in the mid-1600's and named for The House of Bourbon, which ruled France at the time.  The vanilla extract from this region also is processed in a special way-- using a technique called the "Bourbon method."

I'll go into this processing difference in greater detail in a future post for all the vanilla obsessed readers out there.  Most people will be unaware of these distinctions, but they will most certainly realize that YOUR "Bourbon vanilla extract" tastes different than the store-bought stuff-- and that there's a good reason for this.  Unlike most "Bourbon vanilla extract", your extract will have bourbon in it.

3.  BE SURE THAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO TASTE BOURBON IN YOUR BOURBON VANILLA EXTRACT.  After trying my vanilla extract made with 50% bourbon and 50% vodka by volume, I must report that the bourbon flavor is fairly strong.  This could either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you want to use your vanilla.  I've used my "bourbon vanilla extract" in cookies and various other baked goods and nobody has complained (or even noticed) the difference.  It is, however, something to consider.

4.  DON'T SKIMP ON THE VANILLA BEANS.  I was surprised when I did the math and determined that the cost of the vanilla beans amounted to about 15% of my total cost for this project.  If I had used 1 pound of Planifolia vanilla beans (instead of the 1/4 pound I started with) I would only have increased my total cost by an additional 15%.   In the end, I ended up making vanilla that cost about $4 for each 4 ounce bottle (including gift wrap) and I ended up with 25 4 ounce bottles and an extra 6 to 8 ounces just for me.  If I'd used four times the amount of vanilla, the cost would still have been less than $5 a bottle.

I mention this because many of the vanilla extract recipes that I've seen call for far less vanilla beans than the FDA requires for commercially-produced vanilla extract.  This means that homemade vanilla extract is often results in a weak product, compared to commercially-produced vanilla extract.

Commercial producers also have the advantage of using professional grade extraction techniques, which gives them an advantage over the home cook.  I'm currently in the process to trying extractions of different strengths.  I'm currently testing vanilla extract made with 1, 2, 3, and 4 vanilla beans per 4 ounces of alcohol.  The experiment should be complete by December of this year and I'll be sure to report back with my findings.

My experiments are based on the notion that by FDA standards, vanilla extract must be made with ethyl alcohol that is no less than 35% alcohol in volume.  It must also made with 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans (using only one of the two approved variety of beans) per gallon of alcohol.  The beans must also have a specific moisture content, but that's another story.  I have no way to measure moisture content, but I can do the calculations to determine that I would need to use approximately six vanilla beans per 8 ounces of liquid to come close to meeting this standard.
My husband asks to sample our extract in the making, Nov. 2011.

Buffalo Bourbon Vanilla Extract
by Susan Lutz

NOTE:  I have no ties to the makers of Buffalo Trace Bourbon.  I picked it because it wasn't too expensive and had a cool name that I thought would add to the appeal of the gift.  (I printed out cute labels for "Buffalo Bourbon Vanilla" so people would understand that there's actual BOURBON in my vanilla extract.  I liked this idea of adding bourbon flavor to my vanilla extract, but if you don't like the taste of bourbon, don't use it.  The bourbon was double the price of the vodka so you can reduce the overall cost of this project by using 3 liters of inexpensive vodka instead of the bourbon/vodka combo.
Bottles awaiting filling, Nov. 2011.

  • 24 4-ounce bottles (either brown or blue glass)
  • 1 large food-safe container (at least 3 liters in total volume)
  • A funnel with a tip small enough to fit into the tops of your 4 ounce bottles
  • A non-reactive ladle, spoon, or scooper of some description
  • 1.75 liters of Buffalo Trace bourbon or the bourbon of your choice
  • 1.75 liters of vodka (I used Svedka)
  • 1/2 pound to 1 pound of Planifolia vanilla beans (depending on strength of extract you prefer)
I have no affiliation with either of these companies, but I found them both to be friendly and helpful. 
  • Wash all bottles, lids, and other equipment in hot soapy water and let dry.  (If your bottles are dishwasher-safe and you have a dishwasher, it wouldn't hurt to run them through a cycle.)
  • Split vanilla beans lengthwise and cut them into pieces that will fit into your bottle.
  • Place a total of 2 to 3 vanilla beans into each 4 ounce bottle.   (Using 3 vanilla beans per 4 ounces of alcohol will get you close to meeting the minimum government standard for vanilla extract.)
  • If you are using a mixture of bourbon and vodka, pour the contents of each 1.75 liter bottle of alcohol into a large food-safe container and stir to mix.
  • Ladle out approximately 4 ounces of bourbon-vodka mixture into each 4 ounce bottle, making sure that the alcohol covers the vanilla beans completely.
  • Put lid on bottle and place in a cool, dark place for 3 to 6 months.  Check bottles occasionally to make sure the vanilla beans are still covered with alcohol and give them a quick shake.
  • After six months, you may wish to strain out the vanilla bean.
  • According to Joseph Shuldiner, you may keep a single bottle of vanilla extract for up to seven years.  Once you use about half of the contents of a bottle, you can add more vodka and let sit for 3 to 5 months before using.  I've been doing this by rotating two bottles and it's been working beautifully.  Of course, I use a lot of vanilla at my house.