I was pricing vanilla extract online yesterday and feeling discouraged about the cost. I’d also priced vanilla at three different grocery chains without finding an affordable option.
Here’s the situation: Pure vanilla extract runs at least two dollars an ounce for smaller bottles, like a miniature two-ounce bottle, and for larger bottles the price hovers around $1.50 per ounce. The best deal I found was a 32-ounce bottle of vanilla for $36 dollars—but I really don’t feel like shelling out that much for vanilla. And I don’t want to go back to using imitation vanilla.
At lunch, I complained about the Vanilla Problem to my co-worker and friend Karalyn, who, with a background in catering and a love of food, is always ready with cooking advice.
“Did you know you can make your own vanilla?” she asked.
I stared at her for a moment, wondering if she was playing a joke on me.
“No …” I said, cautiously.
“Well, let me tell you how to do it,” she said.
The process for making your own vanilla extract, according to Karalyn, is easy. All you need is a bottle of brandy or vodka and two vanilla beans. Slice the beans in half crosswise and slit them lengthwise, then drop them in the bottle of brandy. Let it sit for about six weeks, and you’ll have vanilla extract.
It really did sound easy! And I knew I had to try it—and soon, because six weeks would be just around the start of holiday baking season, and I wanted my homemade vanilla for that. The only difficulty would be getting the ingredients.
First, because I don’t drink alcohol and haven’t ever cooked with it, I have never purchased any. This raised a couple of challenges: I didn’t have the slightest idea what to look for, and I also didn’t want anyone to think I was buying it to drink. Sure, people do drink, but being a non-drinker is part of who I am; and as part of that identity, you just won’t find me browsing the liquor aisles at the local grocery. So I had to check my conscience: as a person who doesn’t drink, should I be buying alcohol for any reason?
If not, I suppose I shouldn’t have ever been buying vanilla extract in the first place. And that seemed a bit absurd. Ultimately, I decided that buying alcohol for the purpose of making vanilla extract was something I could do without compromising my teetotaler values. So buy it I did—feeling pretty out of place, of course. You can believe that was one of the quickest shopping trips I’ve ever made.
Second, where would I find fresh vanilla beans? Karalyn suggested one of her favorite health food markets, and since one of them, the Red Clover Market, is located near my work, I decided to give them a call to make sure they had some beans. They did: Madagascar vanilla beans at $1.14 per bean.
Just in case the closest discount chain grocery to my work had vanilla beans, I thought I’d give Super Saver a call too. They had to send someone to look, but eventually they found a jar with two beans in it on the spice aisle, for $8.00 a bottle. Yes, that’s eight dollars for two beans—three and a half times the cost of the fresh beans at Red Clover.
When I got home from my vanilla extract ingredient shopping run, I laid my Red Clover vanilla beans on a cutting board, sliced them in half crosswise, slit them lengthwise, and dropped them in the bottle of brandy. I made a mental note to change the label to a homemade “Vanilla” label. Then I stored the bottle in the cabinet over the stove to do whatever it is supposed to do.
If this works, in six weeks I will have 750 ml (24 oz) of vanilla extract for $11.50. That’s about 48 cents per ounce—approximately a fourth of the cost of buying vanilla in the store or online.
That’s a good deal.