Monday, March 10, 2014

DIY Vanilla Extract

Today I made my own vanilla extract! I've been wanting to make my own vanilla for a long time so I asked for a Homemade Vanilla Extract Infusion Kit and Ugandan Vanilla Beans from Beanilla for my birthday this year. My mom got me the kit and beans, she also threw in a bottle of Bacardi Select Rum (mostly because she knows rum is gluten-free and because Bacardi has one of my favorite animals on the bottle, a bat!).

The DIY instructions from Beanilla are extremely easy to follow - and they're printed on the bottle! You simply slice each vanilla pod lengthwise, stick them into your bottle, add a cup of alcohol and shake one or twice a week. In eight weeks you'll have your own homemade vanilla extract! 

As I sliced each pod open I admired the rich vanilla fragrance - and all of those tiny vanilla seeds! I asked for two different types of vanilla beans because I was curious - how different would the beans be? The Madagascar beans were very plump and a milk chocolate brown color. They were easy to slice open because they were moist, almost juicy. The Ugandan beans were much thinner and darker in color. They were more difficult to slice open, but they appeared to have more seeds in each pod. I used the same rum for each batch so I'll truly be able to tell the difference between the two extracts.

Madagascar Vanilla Beans + DIY Extract

My favorite thing about vanilla is that is comes from an orchid. Not the orchid that I have growing on my mantle, but a creamy white to greenish yellow orchid which is native to Central America. 

The vanilla orchid grows as a vine which can reach 80 feet in length. It was first grown by the Aztecs. Today vanilla is grown in tropical countries around the world. In order to get a vanilla pod, the orchid flower must be pollinated. In the wild this is done by mountain bees, but on a vanilla farm, it is done by hand. The technique to hand pollinate vanilla was discovered by a twelve year old boy named Edmund Albius in 1841. The orchid flower is open for about eight hours so farmers must work quickly to pollinate all of their flowers. It takes six to nine months for the vanilla pods to mature and ripen. Then each pod is harvested and cured (a process that takes at least another six months). 

Vanilla extract and pods are expensive (its the second most expensive flavoring after saffron, another flavoring I'd like to DIY) because this process is labor and time intensive. In the past, vanilla was so expensive that only royalty could afford it. The extract has been used as cure for upset stomachs, asthma, coughs, anxiety and other ailments. Artificial vanilla is made from a byproduct of the wood pulp used to make paper, though in official taste tests artificial vanilla is only detectable in cold desserts like ice cream. 

Even though most people cannot tell the difference between real and artificial vanilla in baked goods, I still prefer to use the real thing. I look at vanilla the same way that I look at coffee and chocolate - they're special. All are amazing plant products from the tropics that take a lot of time and attention from farmers and producers to turn into something delicious. 

Ugandan Vanilla Beans + DIY Extract

Have you ever made your own vanilla extract? How did it turn out?