Vanilla is native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, and these beans are frequently the thickest and juiciest of the bunch. Compared to Madagascar beans, they have a woodsy flavor, reminiscent of warm spices like clove, allspice, and nutmeg. These would make a beautiful pairing with cinnamon and are perfect for any chocolate dessert. To amplify their flavor even further, char the vanilla beans over a gas flame before infusing.
Tahitian vanilla beans
Tahitian vanilla beans are generally the most aromatic of these three, but their flavor tends to be more delicate. These have a floral note with a fruity brightness and would do well in a recipe where vanilla is a supporting player, like in a cherry pie or peach cobbler.
Putting it to the test:
I’ve had my personal jar of homemade vanilla extract for over eight years, and it’s never let me down. But because I’m only a part-time baker, I wanted to test my DIY vanilla on a real pro. I gifted a tiny vial to Lara Adekoya, founder of boutique baking company Fleurs et Sel. Adekoya uses vanilla in virtually every one of her recipes—she probably goes through more vanilla extract in one day than I do in a month. And while she buys pure vanilla extract in bulk from Costco ($50 for a 32-ounce bottle), it’s still one of the most expensive products on her grocery list.
A bit of simple math reveals that homemade vanilla extract is the more economical choice. Say you buy two 4-ounce bottles of the good vanilla extract from the grocery store every year. If each jar costs $18, that’s $180 over a five-year span. Prefer the store brand? That’s $11 per 4-ounce bottle, or $110 for five years. In the first five years of making my own vanilla, I spent $30 on four high-quality beans, $6 on a single inexpensive bottle of vodka, and approximately $5 for the jar. Total: $41. Even if you’re an average baker like me, the homemade stuff pays for itself pretty quickly.
After trying my DIY version, Adekoya was a believer. She was pleasantly surprised by how potent and fragrant the homemade vanilla extract was. That said, I made sure to add a bunch of seeds and a couple of pieces of vanilla hull to her bottle, and I’m sure the constant shaking during the delivery process helped draw out additional flavor. As it turns out, Adekoya has a ton of used vanilla bean hulls from her popular vanilla-bean sugar cookie recipe. With this newly acquired tutorial, she expects to have her own vanilla extract just in time for holiday cookie season. Start your jar today, and you can too.
Further reporting contributed by Joe Sevier.
Courtney Sprewer is a freelance writer based in Chicago, where she runs the blog EatDrinkDoWear.