Did you know that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron!).
Extracting your own vanilla is a great way to make it affordable on a grand scale.
One of my gifts this year for moms and sisters and friends are bottles of homemade vanilla extract. Mexico is known for their vanilla beans and believe me when I say, we tried, tried and tried again to find authentic Mexican vanilla beans while we were traveling on the Yucatan Peninsula. Of course, we were able to find bottles of vanilla extract and an untold amount of Chile powder, but vanilla beans -- no luck. Luckily, amazon has a nice assortment of various beans from sellers across the world, so I was able to buy a bag of dried beans and shipped the next day.
You can see they are between 4-6 inches long and full of yummy vanilla goodness. Before adding them to your bottle, cut a slit up the middle of the bean and make sure it is open widely so the alcohol can really "extract" the flavor from the bean. I add 5-6 (edited: go for 8-10 for a deep vanilla!) beans per cup of vodka.
Fill the bottle with your choice of vodka and seal the bottle. Every day, give the bottle a little shake and a few months later, you will have a nice sized bottle of vanilla extract.
The transformation starts to happen immediately.
Every day, the color deepens a bit more and the scent of vanilla starts to overtake the scent of alcohol.
After you have finished using the vanilla extract, you can add more vodka to the leftover beans. Just allow the alcohol to extract the flavor for several more months and you will have a new bottle of vanilla extract. If you keep one bottle for use and one bottle in stock, you will never run out and never have to pay $4.56 for that little miniature bottle of McCormick's at the grocery store! You can use the beans at least twice, but perhaps more.
To challenge myself a little more, I not only purchased beans, but I also purchased a very small vanilla PLANT. It is only 3-4 inches tall, but will hopefully grow quickly and start producing my own vanilla beans to process. The vanilla plant is an orchid, and I've had good luck growing orchids in the past, so wish me luck!
One of the reasons pure vanilla is so expensive is that it has to be hand pollinated in most locales. In Mexico, there is a certain bee that is very savvy about pollinating and naturally pollinates the vanilla beans. In the rest of the world, humans have to hand pollinate by carefully lifting up a tiny flap called the rostellum and push the anther and stigma together. I told you it was a bit complicated...those bees have SKILLS. Anyway, this pollination must occur within 12 hours of the flower opening. This process takes attention!
Like all orchids, the leading cause of death indoors is overwatering. 3 cubes of ice a week will do well for them! If you can leave them in a humid environment, such as a greenhouse or bathroom, they need even less.
Below are the amazon stores I used to purchase my beans and plant. Both stores shipped quickly
and packaged the items carefully, so if you are interested in creating your own vanilla extract, I highly recommend them!