I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, especially when it comes to knowing things that have actual, real-world applications. I can go on and on about mostly useless trivia (god bless Master of Arts degrees), but I always seem to be learning basic things that other people have knownsince the 1980s… at least.

That said, Dr. Obvious paid a visit to our quiet, lakeside community recently, and I was flabbergasted to discover the following new (to me) facts:

1. It is possible to make vanilla extract at home.

This should not have been news to me, having descended from a woman who insisted on making her own ketchup, curry pastes, bread, and soup stocks. My mom endeavoured to make as much food from scratch as possible when we were growing up, but somehow, the thought that vanilla extract could also be made at home escaped me until very recently. I just assumed it was untouchable.

I use a ton of vanilla in my kitchen. It goes in my oatmeal every morning, flavours my weekly batch of almond milk, and features prominently in any cake or baked good recipe I test out (for scientific purposes only. Obviously.) Each bottle of vanilla extract runs around a hefty $8-$12 from the store, so discovering that I could make a schwack of vanilla extract– easily, by myself, at home, for a fraction of the cost of the store-bought variety– felt like the Secret of Life had been whispered sweetly into my ear. Homemade vanilla extract! Who knew?

Starting the process off by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol

2. Bourbon = Whiskey

The recipe I found online for homemade vanilla extract called for some bourbon. I ventured out to the local liquor store, post-haste, and scanned the aisles for the telltale “Bourbon” sign. None could be found! I saw signs for Wine, B.C. Wine, Beer, Vodka, Liqueurs, and all sorts of other spirits, but the Bourbon sign was conspicuously absent from the lot.

I felt certain that this was not possible– surely liquor stores sell bourbon… and scotch… and beer (at least if that terrible George Thorogood song has any truth to it whatsoever)– so I focused on the shelves more intently, pleading silently with the myriad bottles to point the way to the bourbon without me having to ask a clerk. (A thing you should know about me and liquor stores: I’m not a drinker at all, so I inevitably end up looking like a wide-eyed, probably underage kid whenever I go into one. It doesn’t help that I’m usually wearing a junior high-appropriate backpack. (Blame commuting by foot.) I’m a tad self-conscious about my lack of liquor store savvy, so I usually overcompensate and pretend I know exactly what I’m doing as I stroll regally through the aisles. This air of overconfidence, in turn, tends to make liquor store clerks suspicious– like I’m not of legal drinking age and/or trying to steal something. Guess how often I get ID’d at liquor stores? Almost every single time. Showing my ID isn’t a huge deal, but it’s awkward and embarrassing to know that the only reason I’m getting carded in the first place is because I’ve acted like a total freak.)

Anyway: bourbon. I lingered in certain sections of the liquor store, trying to locate a godforsaken bottle of bourbon. I knew it wasn’t vodka. I knew it wasn’t wine. Finally, I stumbled into the whiskey section and noted with confusion that there were bottles of scotch, rye, and Irish whiskeys there. Another awkward minute passed, and thankfully, I happened to read the blessed words “bourbon” on a bottle of Jim Beam. Yes! Bourbon!! I snatched it up (in retrospect, a little too swiftly) and then was promptly asked to show my ID to the clerk at the till. Next time I’ll know: bourbon IS whiskey. I might even escape the dreaded ID check– Thank you, Dr. Obvious!

Bless you, Mr. Beam

3. Vanilla is a ‘bean’ in the ‘green’, ‘yellow’, or ‘string’ sense of the term, not in the ‘mung’ or ‘kidney’ sense.

I felt so mature bringing home a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. I win liquor store shopping! I laid it out on the kitchen counter when I got home, along with a clean jar and several vanilla pods.

The recipe calls for a ratio of 4 vanilla beans to 1 cup of bourbon, so I gleefully laid out three long vanilla pods and sliced them open lengthwise, fully expecting tiny “beans”– many more than four of them– to spill forth.


Vanilla pods are not like pea pods. No spherical pearls of sumptuous vanilla roll out of vanilla pods. For future reference: the long black pods are vanilla beans. Inside the pods, there are only sticky, smaller-than-poppy-seed grits. If you decide to make your own vanilla extract, use four long pods in every one cup of bourbon. (And, on that note, try to buy the vanilla pods in bulk. I bought my first few individually from Planet Organic and ended up paying more for 3 measly beans than I did for approximately 10 beans in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs. Lessons learned, Dr. Obvious– lessons learned!)

The difference between beans and seeds is duly noted

4. “Bourbon” Vanilla Extract can actually be made with vodka.

Be honest: you see a bottle of “Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract” at the store and automatically assume it was made with bourbon whiskey. I did, too! Alas, it was only after I purchased a gigantic bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon that I read more about vanilla extract online. Turns out that the “bourbon” part actually refers to the type of vanilla bean that is used, not the alcohol itself. There are “Tahitian” and “Bourbon” types of vanilla beans, and just about any ol’ alcohol can be used as a base to make your own extract. Just don’t use beer. I think that would be nasty.

I saw several people writing online that they’ve found vodka to be the best when making vanilla extract at home. (Apparently it is one of the most tasteless alcohols around and really allows the vanilla flavour to punch through.) I will happily attempt my own extract with vodka after I’ve guzzled down a whole liter of bourbon-based vanilla extract, but that could take a while… In the meantime, I’m waiting for my Jim Beam-based extract to mature and will definitely report back once I finally crack open the jar. 🙂

One week of sitting, with original Jim Beam bottle on left side for comparison

Two weeks of sitting… only six more weeks to wait!

To Make Your Own Vanilla Extract at Home:

1. Use a ratio of 4 vanilla beans (aka pods, not non-existent pearl-seeds!) to 1 cup of alcohol (bourbon or vodka, though others have reported delicious-tasting vanilla extract with a bottle of Jack Daniels)

2. Slice beans lengthwise and place into clean jar with alcohol.

3. Wait.

4. Gently shake your vanilla brew every couple of days.

5. Use as you would store-bought vanilla extract after 8 weeks of waiting. Patience is a virtue, my friends.

6. Marvel at all the money you saved, simply by putting vanilla beans in a jar with regular ol’ alcohol.

7. Thank Dr. Obvious for coming to town! 🙂

I started off with a modest 3/4 cup of alcohol and 3 vanilla beans, partly because I wanted to test this recipe out before making a gallon of it, but mostly because I had only purchased 3 vanilla pods in advance from Planet Organic. I assumed that 3 pods would contain 30+ seeds/beans inside, but I was so wrong. I’ve since ordered a giant sack of vanilla beans/pods from Mountain Rose Herbs, and I will be adding them to my mostly-full Jim Beam bottle in the next few days.

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