Make your own Vanilla Essence
Vanilla essence is beautiful and indispensable when baking. It can be expensive to buy, as a 60ml bottle can cost upwards of $10 – but it’s also deceptively easy to make your own vanilla essence at home with only two (!) ingredients.
All you need is vanilla bean pods with the beans scraped out (the scraped beans are great for use in, for example, a vanilla bean pound cake) and some vodka. The vodka as a flavour-neutral alcohol both preserves the pods, and the flavour of the vanilla becomes infused with the vodka over time. This gives the essence of vanilla. The strength of the essence will rise and fall based on how long the pods have had to steep in the vodka, when the vodka was last topped up, and how many pods have been added.
I have a stash of vanilla bean pods for baking, and as I use the beans I simply add the scraped pods to my vanilla essence bottle. As the vodka level gets below the pods, it just needs to be topped up and voilà – you have the magic pudding of home made vanilla essence. How to store vanilla bean pods and a stepwise method for homemade vanilla essence are below.
Storing vanilla bean pods
Vanilla bean pods like to be stored in a dry, cool spot, but need a bit of fresh air every now and again. The best method I have found is to gently but securely wrap the pods in parchment, store them in a jar, but bring them out to breathe every few weeks for a few minutes at a time.
1. Grab a sheet of parchment paper, some twine, and a jar for storage (I use a re-purposed glass juice bottle).
2. Place the pods on the parchment, fold the ends around the beans, then – not too tightly – roll the parchment up into a scroll with the pods at the centre.
3. Secure the parchment scroll with some twine, and place this into a jar which can be kept sealed in a not-too-hot spot.
4. Every few weeks, open up the jar, unroll the pods and let them breathe for a few minutes.
Make your own vanilla essence
– Vanilla bean pods, with beans scraped and used elsewhere
1. Gather a small bottle for your essence. I use a re-purposed maple syrup bottle as it’s just about the right height for vanilla pods chopped in half, and gives a good ratio of vodka-to-pods based on how regularly I expect to: add new scraped pods to the essence, and use the vanilla essence.
2. After using the beans from a vanilla pod*, stick the scraped pod (it may need to be sliced in half length-ways to fit, as mine do) into the bottle for your vanilla essence, then top up with vodka.
3. Leave the essence to sit and infuse for a few weeks – when you can smell the rich vanilla fragrance, it should be ready to use.
4. Keep adding scraped vanilla pods as you use vanilla beans, and top up the bottle with vodka when the liquid level falls below the top of the pods. Be mindful of the changing nature of the vanilla essence – you may need to adjust the amount used based on how freshly vodka has been added (and therefore diluted the essence).
It’s that easy! It smells divine, and only requires buying vanilla pods (if you’re in Australia, Sunshine Vanilla has fair trade, organic, vanilla pods at a great price) and vodka – if these two items live in your kitchen anyway, it’s basically free and takes no time at all.
*When baking, if you are using vanilla beans from the pod, you can make a gently length-wise slice down the pod to open it up. Scrape a knife gently moving from one end to the other to pick up as many of the beans as possible, while not grabbing bits of the pod itself. There’s a tutorial with photos here at TheKitchn.