|You're probably wondering what a bat with the face of a fox has to do with vanilla extract...|
I got to thinking "so...what's the optimal steeping time? How long is too long to let it sit? What's the best vodka for this and does it make that big a difference? What's in imitation vanilla and will it kill me? Are there options with regards to the beans?"
So I went a-Googlin' and found several posts about this project, and I will spare you most of them (they're good, but I think I read twenty. You're probably not as obsessive as I am...) My favorite is this one from Chocolate and Zucchini because it gives a lot of information.
I was also really interested in this "All About Vanilla" series at The Organic Vanilla Bean Company that describes the pollination, harvesting, and blanching/curing/drying processes involved in producing vanilla beans. It's really rather amazing, and no wonder those beans cost so much! I was especially amused that a bat bone was used for pollination! Scroll down just a bit here and you'll see it. And that's what the picture at the top of this post has to do with vanilla extract.
Here's what I learned in answer to my questions, though...
What's the optimum steeping time? There isn't one! You should steep for about 6-8 weeks, and then top off with more vodka (you can also use bourbon or rum, but those impart an additional flavor to the extract) as needed. You can use the same beans this way for a year. You can also add new beans and remove the old ones every now and then, and keep topping off and use the same jar rather indefinitely since alcohol is naturally preservative.
How long is too long to let it sit?
What's the best vodka for this and does it make that big a difference? The only information I found on this is that the vodka (or bourbon or rum) should be at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).
What's in imitation vanilla and will it kill me? It's vanillin (the main chemical in vanilla beans that gives them their flavor) and it's often derived from wood pulp. There don't seem to be any health concerns. So hooray for that! I go through at least a tablespoon of vanilla a week just keeping us stocked up on granola. I don't know that I will spend the money just yet to keep us using the "real" stuff. I will certainly be making it as gifts, though!
Are there options with regards to the beans?
Yes, and you can learn a bit about them here or here. The upshot for me was that most bakers seem to use Tahitian vanilla beans to make their vanilla extract, so that's what I'll be doing! Probably buying from here, but maybe trying to find a smaller quantity depending on how much vanilla extract I decide to make.
Other random things I learned
-The most common ratio of beans to alcohol is 3 beans to 1 cup.
-Splitting the beans down the middle and scraping the "bean caviar" out and putting that directly in the jar along with the pod makes for stronger extract faster than if you chop the pods. So split and scrape!
-Specialty Bottle exists.
-Curiosity is like a disease for me.