If you read the “ingredients” section in any book with a pastry chef’s name on the front, you will likely find a discussion of that chef’s preferred vanilla bean, complete with a discussion of its unique and superior qualities. Now let me first state that there is a marked difference between vanilla beans from different regions… but for the home cook, the much larger problem is not “Which of many equally high quality beans should I buy?”– rather more “Where can I get a decent quality vanilla that will cost less than an introductory life insurance policy?” Many stores carry vanilla beans, but it is often a specialty item that doesn’t move quickly– consequently I’ve seen a lot of old, dried vanilla on store shelves. The most basic marker of quality is moisture: a good bean should be supple– yielding just a bit to pressure. An old bean will be dry and brittle. My advice is to check your local providers for cost and freshness– if none of them look good you might do better to order from an online supplier. If you are lucky enough to have more than one good bean option, I would chose a Madagascar bean for extract. Tahitian vanilla beans (which had at least a moment of being the trendy ingredient-du-jour a few years back) are not, in my mind, ideally suited for extract.
6 whole Whole Vanilla Beans for every
1 c. Liquor (rum, vodka, brandy even tequila)
Select a Liquor:
Most of the flavor in the extract comes from the vanilla, but you can alter the flavor by using different liquors. Rather obviously, the strength of your extract is affected by the proportion of beans to liquor and the length of time that the beans steep. Less obvious is that the higher proof liquor you use, the more concentrated extract you will achieve. I don’t think that it is worth it to go out of your way to find the perfect liquor– I’d just use whatever you have chaply available. Even if you select a very inexpensive vodka, you can still make a good quality extract.
Just cover the beans and liquor tightly, store away from light and heat and wait 2 months. At the end of steeping you can remove the vanilla bean and squeeze out the seeds (use in ice cream, custard, or to poach fruit). Then dry out the pod and use to make vanilla powder or sugar.
Stored away from light and heat vanilla extract will keep indefinitely.
Now that the tasty compounds that make vanilla taste like vanilla have seeped out into your extract, they are a bit volatile. To get the most flavor from your extract add it at the end of cooking to hot dishes (such as fruit compotes of custards). If you are baking with the extract then cream the extract together with the butter. The fat magically* stabilizes the vanilla flavor and allows it to persevere even after being subjugated to the traumas of baking.
*Okay, not really magic. The volatile aromatic compounds are more soluble in fat than water, so they seep out into the fat before baking. Then they stay there (in the fat in your cookies and cakes) rather than evaporating in a puff of perfumed steam.