Monday, May 6, 2013

The Flavorful Vanilla Bean

The vanilla bean (technically a long capsule) is derived from the vine of the vanilla orchid. 

 The Totonaca Indians, along the Gulf of Mexico coast, first cultivated the orchid.  They used its beans for a variety of medicinal purposes and in rituals.  The Aztecs were the first to use vanilla as a flavoring.  The Spanish landed in Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century and brought vanilla back to Europe where it soon spread worldwide. Most vanilla beans produced today come from Madagascar and Indonesia.

It wasn’t until 1847 that a Boston chemist invented the liquid vanilla extract.  Pure vanilla extract combines pure vanilla beans with alcohol.  Imitation vanilla extract combines pure and synthetic vanilla (usually made from paper pulp) with alcohol.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, mainly because pollination and harvesting of the beans is all done by hand.  And that is your culinary history lesson of the day!

A number of years ago I began reading stories online about people making their own vanilla extract.  My interest in making my own vanilla extract was really sparked when Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, demonstrated how easy it is to do. I’ve been making my own vanilla extract for about five years now.  It’s easy and inexpensive, the taste is exquisite. I will never buy vanilla extract again!

I use mason jars to make my extract (aren’t mason jars just the most versatile things?)  I take vanilla beans, split them so the yummy goodness inside the beans will be exposed to the liquid.

Then I cover the beans with vodka (Some use rum or bourbon.  Vodka is more neutral so I think you get more of the true vanilla taste. However, it’s nice to have various kinds in your pantry to use in baking ventures). Also note that any inexpensive vodka will work, this was all we had at the time! Then put a lid on it, put in your cabinet and forget about it except for shaking it every now and then.  The longer it sits, the darker it gets and the more pronounced the vanilla flavor is.  I usually have two jars in my cabinet; one that I’m currently using and one that is curing.


Homemade vanilla extract makes a great gift; just decant into a cute bottle or jar, add a vanilla bean, put a cute label or tag on it and you have a wonderful culinary gift!

I buy my vanilla beans in bulk from online sources such as Amazon and store in mason jars.  They run about $25 for ½ pound of good bourbon beans.  Don’t let that scare you as the package will last a while.

I also keep a sugar container on my kitchen counter with vanilla beans in it. When it gets low I add more sugar and/or beans. It’s nice to use this sugar for baking recipes that call for vanilla (just omit adding the extract to the recipe), for making fresh whipped cream, even in a cup of coffee.
 I am linking up to Metamorphosis Monday at Between Naps on the Porch.


  1. Julie, I have been making my own too for a number of years. I took the suggestion of a well known Southern cookbook author, Camille Glenn and use cognac. I tried it with several other alcohols and decided I liked this one the best. If you haven't tried it you might next time you brew some just to see how you like the taste difference.

    BTW, very informative post.


    1. I will try that, Carolyn! Thanks!

  2. What a great idea, thank you for sharing and welcome to the blogasphere or is that blogoshpere!