And while cheaper, high-quality imitation vanilla can be had (in fact, we highly recommend McCormick Premium Vanilla Flavoring), there’s just something about using the real deal that feels so satisfying. Especially if you make it yourself. The process is simple: Combine vanilla beans and alcohol (vodka, rum, and bourbon are popular choices) in a bottle where the alcohol acts as a solvent to extract soluble flavor compounds from the beans.
The only catch? You have to be a bit patient, as it typically takes 6-10 weeks for alcohol to extract soluble flavor compounds from the beans.
Over the years, we’ve developed a number of tricks to speed up this process, but Senior Editor Steve Dunn recently refined our speediest method yet: Using a sous vide circulator to cut the extraction time down to 18 hours.
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Time-Saving Trick #1: Heating the Alcohol
One trick we’ve long relied on to speed up the vanilla extraction process is gently heating the alcohol.
The only problem is that this is a delicate process—you can’t let the alcohol get too hot. Heat can damage the volatile flavor compounds in vanilla and vaporize the liquor if it reaches 170 F.
This is where the sous vide circulator, which holds food at a precise temperature, comes in. Steve circulates the alcohol and vanilla in a 145 F water bath: A temperature that’s high enough to speed extraction, but not so high that the volatile flavor compounds in the vanilla would be damaged.
Time-Saving Trick #2: Splitting the Beans
To make the extraction process even quicker, Steve decided to split open the vanilla bean pods.
He tested leaving the beans whole, split, and pulverized in a food processor to see which method—if any—could produce a full-flavored vanilla extract after being circulated sous vide for just a day.
The batch with the whole beans was too weak at the 24 hour mark.
The batch with the processed beans tasted fully extracted after a day—but it also contained off-putting woody and murky notes from the shards of pod.
The split beans were the winners. Splitting the beans exposes the seeds to the alcohol and speeds extraction but avoids the funky flavors introduced when chopping up the pods. Splitting was so effective that the extract didn’t even need to circulate for a full 24 hours—just 18 was enough for the extract to taste sufficiently vanilla infused.
To really put his homemade extract to the test, Steve asked tasters to compare the sample against a good-quality commercial extract both cold in vanilla milk and baked into Chewy Sugar Cookies.
All tasters found the homemade extract to be equal to or better than the commercially made extract when tasted in the vanilla milk, finding it fully extracted, well-balanced, and complex.
Ready to try it yourself? Here’s his method.
Desserts IllustratedPart cookbook, part handbook, Desserts Illustrated is the last word on the last (but definitely not the least) course.
How to Make Vanilla Extract Overnight
1. Using sous vide circulator, bring water to 145 F in large container.
2. Cut vanilla beans in half lengthwise.
3. Place 8-10 vanilla beans (1 ounce) and 1 cup 80-100 proof vodka in 12-ounce Mason (or another brand) canning jar and seal; do not overtighten lid. (Depending on shape of jar, you may need to cut beans in half crosswise so that vodka fully covers beans.)
4. Gently lower jar into water bath until fully submerged. Cover and cook for 16-18 hours.