Nov 5, 2012

Homemade Vanilla Extract, Vanilla Sugar and More

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How is it November already? HOW? This is all just bananas to me. Because in my feeble mind, it seems that just a couple months ago we were ringing in 2012, and then a few weeks after that my first cookbook was unleashed onto the world. Hours later, I discovered that we would be thrown into the newborn abyss once again. Somewhere in there my first baby turned four (four!!) and then a few blinks later I had a second cookbook come out. I’m sure it didn’t go exactly that way, but it sure feels like it. Turns out that time moving at warp speed isn’t exactly conducive to a massive case of pregnancy brain. Plus I’m, like, 23 weeks sober. Someone remind me what day it is. Eesh.

So! Here we are, inexplicably teetering on the edge of the holiday season. Do you know what you’re doing for gifts this year? Clearly, given the above paragraph, I do not. But even though we’re barreling towards a whole lotta fa-la-la-la-la!, now is the perfect time to crank out awesomely inexpensive, handmade holiday presents that seem all highfalutin, and are perfect for blowing minds and taking names. Seriously, you can crank out a dozen gifts or more in a matter of hours, suitable for giving to everyone from your mother to the mailman. And, like so many things in my life these days, it all starts with the genius of vanilla. Obvi.

To start, you’ll need to get yourself a bunch of vanilla beans, which I know can be pricey. But! I am kind of an expert at sourcing the best beans at the best prices by now, so can I just recommend Vanilla Saffron Imports (don’t let the sparse website and packaging dissuade you–this place is the real deal) and Beanilla? Some folks find good vanilla deals on Amazon as well. But the bottom line is that ordering online will save you tons of cash. No way around that. Buying vanilla beans at retail will make your wallet cry.

So now that you know how to get a bundle of well-priced, good-quality, fragrant vanilla beans in your hot little hands, let me pass on a few DIY gifty ideas from Pure Vanilla, as a little present from me to you:

Homemade Vanilla Extract. The obsession of better food bloggers everywhere. I’ll let you in on a little secret: there’s nothing fancy to see here. Booze. Vanilla Beans. Cute storage vessel. Time. BOOM. The end. Simply fill an 8-ounce bottle or small mason jar (I love the crystal-cut kind for a sweet, vintage feel) with liquor, and shove in anywhere from two to five whole vanilla beans, split lengthwise, depending on how intense you want the extract to be, and how generous you’re feeling. Vodka is my booze of choice here–no comments from the peanut gallery–because it’s colorless and flavorless, and a mid-level quality of vodka isn’t too expensive and does the job just fine. But you can get creative with things like light rum, dark rum, bourbons, etc.

There’s an interesting little vanilla tasting notes section in the book that outlines the different flavor nuances of various origins of vanilla from around the world, and the flavors with which they pair especially well, which makes for a really fun way to create your own special blend of vanilla extract. Example: Tahitian vanilla with light rum? I ain’t mad ‘atcha. Whatever booze and bean you decide to pair, allow for about 6 to 8 weeks of hangout time for the extract to reach full strength. Which means you should get started, like, today.

It should be noted that there are two grades of vanilla beans: Grade A and Grade B. Grade A beans are the glossy, sexy whole beans that we’re all most familiar with, and their price reflects their lovely aesthetic. And they make great extract, don’t get me wrong. But if you tell a vendor like Vanilla Saffron Imports that you want to order a bunch of Grade B beans from them for extract making, you’ll save money AND get a more intense extract. That’s because Grade B beans aren’t the prettiest–they may be drier, a bit split from hanging out in the sun too long or somesuch. But what that means is that the vanilla flavor in the beans is actually more concentrated (think raisins vs. grapes), and because there’s less moisture, you’ll get more beans to the pound. If you can find them, Grade B beans are the way to go for making homemade extract, no doubt about it.

Homemade Vanilla Sugar. Just like with extract, cram a cute jar full of sugar and beans. Shake it like a Polaroid picture. Give it time to marry in a cool, dark place, and you’ve got yourself a sweet little piece of heaven. Vanilla sugar can be used just like granulated sugar in baking, or use it to make coffee or tea extra craveworthy. You can make this as simple and cheap as using plain white granulated sugar, or fancy it up a bit with my personal favorite: crunchy, glittering turbinado sugar–which is perfect for sprinkling over cookies, cakes, muffins, etc. before baking. Vanilla sugar makes a great last-minute gift, because it doesn’t need as much hang time as extract in order to be permeated with vanilla flavor. Just a couple days is all it needs to cause heavy sighs when the jar is opened and sniffed. I love this stuff.

Homemade Vanilla Fleur de Sel. For the ultimate food enthusiasts in your life, say, those who hoard various oils and vinegars from around the world and talk at length about the two pounds of some exotic spice that got them in trouble with the TSA after they brought it back from an Indonesian bazaar, this is the gift to whip up. Just like you would with vanilla sugar, fill a small jar with a flaky sea salt (like Maldon), shove in a split vanilla bean (spicier, more savory varieties of vanilla beans, like those from Tonga or Uganda, are great here), and give it several days to blossom. What you end up with is vanilla in savory form, perfect for finishing delicate seafoods and spring vegetables. You can also use the salt to finish the Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies from the book, which is probably my favorite way to use it, but I’m sure your Fancy Food Friends will find some infinitely more creative application for vanilla fleur de sel. Isn’t that always the way with these fancy food people?

I hope these ideas give you the little push you need to start making some fantastic homemade vanilla gifts this year. There’s even more DIY ideas in the pages of Pure Vanilla, if you feel inclined to gift a copy along with your homemade gifts. Because really, there’s simply no better way to say, “Hey, I’m a culinary genius. Oh, and Happy Holidays.”

The vendors and brands mentioned in this post haven’t compensated me in any way to give them a shout out. They’re simply sources that I know, love, and call upon on a regular basis. 


  • Is it possible to make your own vanilla bean paste?

  • Super ideas for gifting, Shauna! I always find homemade gifts are extra fun. Twp years ago I made co-workers marshmallows and you’d think I’d just tied a lasso around the moon and gave it to them. “You can do that?” they’d ask in wide-eyed wonder mere seconds before their eyes rolled back into their heads and they tasted the glory that is a homemade marshmallow.

    PS – your Vanilla Saffron link isn’t working! 🙂

  • You can, indeed! It’s basically about scraping vanilla beans into corn syrup, then drying the pods, grinding them, and adding to the mix. There are a few great online sources for more specific directions out there for making it.

    But here’s why I don’t include homemade vanilla paste in the book: I prefer to buy mine over making it. It is one of my favorite ingredients ever, because it has huge vanilla flavor and the beauty of all those vanilla bean flecks. But unlike vanilla extract or vanilla sugar, it’s actually usually cheaper to buy vanilla bean paste than it is to make it, especially if you find a good deal online. In order to match the strength of storebought, you typically need about one bean per 1 tablespoon of corn syrup, so to make a decent amount, you need a whole lot of beans.

    Plus, the glory of vanilla bean paste is that you get all that flavor and those gorgeous flecks without the mess of scraping beans, so to me, going storebought is wonderfully convenient, and to make my own would cancel out the convenience factor, if that makes sense. Just my two cents. 🙂

    • Thank you for the recommendations! I did look online at the recipes for making the paste. I agree, it is a bit of work. I will be buying mine!
      ((I absolutely LOVE your book! It is going to change the way I bake and entertain forever!))

  • A friend of mine did this for xmas gifts one year!

  • I once purchased some vanilla beans from Costco, thinking oh yeah these are a great buy. Have since learnt to purchase online. Definitely cheaper but didn’t know there were grades, will ask next time. I have family already requesting their homemade gifts. I like to do spices, like ranch dressing, or taco seasoning. Will have to try out some of your vanilla ideas.

  • […] out how to make your own vanilla here. The vanilla takes about two months to brew. I attached a label and put the date that it should be […]

  • […] Vanilla extract is in almost every baked treat and here’s a great how-to for making your own vanilla extract from Piece of Cake. You can also find  a link to where to buy the vanilla beans you need to make […]

  • Thanks for your advice on grade. I was just about to commit to grade A beans for making vanilla sugar, but your blog saved me $.20/bean! Yea!

  • […] Vanilla extract is in almost every baked treat and here’s a great how-to for making your own vanilla extract from Piece of Cake. You can also find  a link to where to buy the vanilla beans you need to make […]

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