Last week my friend Courtney asked me if I had any favorite homemade food gifts and I said no. And, then I remembered that homemade vanilla would be a great little gift. I couldn’t stop thinking about the vanilla and that it was time to make some, for my own use. I have made, and gone through at least 10 batches of vanilla since I started making it last year and I finally killed my giant bottle of Skyy vodka on extract alone…and no, I’m not making vanilla martinis. It is all for baking.
I wandered into the liquor store thinking it would be fun to make some vanilla (for myself and for Christmas gifts) with a regional vodka. Several Texas vodkas have gotten good press lately. But, then I saw the lovely little bottle of Dripping Springs Vodka. This company was very present at the Foodways Texas Symposium, helping to keep all of the oysters sliding down. The liquor store salesman then walked over and gave an impressive testimonial on the Dripping Springs Vodka, saying that not only was it a superior vodka but that the company was very hands-on and passionate in their promotion of this elixir. He made the obvious point that I should just do a side by side sipping test. I then had to go into the bizarre sounding song and dance about how, no, I couldn’t do that because I don’t drink alcohol but that I needed good vodka so I could consume a liter of it in cookies. I bought several 750 ml bottles of Dripping Springs Vodka.
I make extract by heating the vodka and adding the beans to it. I had been curious the last few times that I warmed vodka for this recipe whether or not I was harming the vodka or decreasing its potency by warming it too much. Many of the recipes on the internet do not call for warming. The warming aspect pleases me though. It seems to give you a jump start on the extraction of the flavors. I use the method recommended by Cook’s Illustrated. But they didn’t give a temperature for “hot” vodka. So, I decided to ask the folks at dripping springs what they thought about the matter. I received a quick response from Gary Kelleher, none other than the Dripping Springs Master Distiller, letting me know that I could warm it to 110 degrees without damaging the flavor profile during infusion. This might not be as big an issue with all vodka, but since I was trying to make a regionally interesting gift, I didn’t want to kill the very aspects that make this a Texas vodka, namely the flavors from the water present in the vodka.
“By definition, 80 proof vodka contains 40% alcohol by volume. The remaining 60% is water. As such, a Vodka´s quality and taste is dependent on the quality and taste of the water added. We use only the finest spring water available — pure, mineral rich Hill Country Artesian Spring Water. Soft and flavorful, the water rounds out the vodka, enhancing the flavor and feel. Lush with every sip, smooth with every finish.” —Dripping Springs Vodka Website
With regard to the beans, if you frequent this website you know that I buy my beans bulk from JR Mushrooms. I wouldn’t even consider doing this with store bought vanilla beans because the cost would be absolutely prohibitive. But with the beans I buy (and you can go in on it with a friend and buy the 1 pound bag, depending on how much vanilla you think you can use in a year) I get my cost down to around $5 for the 9 beans I need to make a bottle this size. There are several distributors on Amazon with great prices. I can only vouch for JR Mushrooms as a source. Theirs are big, fat, happy vanilla beans. I’m not enough of a connoisseur to tell you they are the finest beans on the planet, but I have been very happy with them. I will never ever again buy a vanilla bean at the grocery store. Of that, I can assure you. (I worry that I am starting to sound like a pitch person, so let me just say that I found these beans randomly on Amazon, and I pay for them myself, and JR Mushrooms doesn’t know me from Adam’s housecat).
I used 9 beans per bottle. I have seen people suggest far more, and Cook’s Illustrated actually uses less, but 9 is where I landed. Between the vodka and the beans, I spent about $25 on each bottle that I made. I am going to keep them hidden in a cupboard and give them away at Christmas when they are nice and strong. But, if you are making this for personal use, a month is sufficient time to wait before using it.
I have read several accounts of people (including Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa) using a bottle of homemade vanilla extract over the course of years and years. All you have to do is periodically add enough new vodka to fill the bottle again, and perhaps throw in a new bean now and again.
[The bottom right photo shows 2 bottles. The one on the right was just poured and the one on the left was made a week prior.]
If you want the small recipe, see my original Homemade Vanilla post. This post is for a 750 ml bottle of vodka. You will need:
a large container with a pouring spout
a 750 ml bottle of Dripping Springs Vodka (or any other vodka)–do not discard the lid
9 vanilla beans
Split the vanilla beans and scrape the beans from half of them. Pour the vodka into a small saucepan and begin to gently heat it to 110 degrees. USE EXTREME CAUTION WHILE HEATING THE VODKA. VODKA IS VERY FLAMMABLE. (See notes at the bottom of the page). Place all of the vanilla beans and the scraped seeds into the empty vodka bottle. When the vodka reaches 110 degrees, remove it from the heat. Depending on how neat you are, you can either pour the vodka directly in the bottle through the funnel. Or, you can pour the vodka into a container with a pouring spout (like the 4-cup glass measure shown) and then pour it into the bottle through the funnel.
For some reason (whether it is the heating or the displacement from the beans, I do not know) I always have more vodka to pour back than will fit in the bottle. So pour slowly so that you don’t have an overflow…which is hot, and messy, and could damage the pretty label.
Replace the lid to the vodka bottle but do not screw it down tightly. Put the vodka bottle in a brown paper bag and put it out of direct sunlight. When the bottle has cooled down, screw the lid on tightly and give the bottle a little shake. For the next few weeks, try to remember to shake the bottle every few days to distribute the beans and seeds. In a month it is ready to go. Or, put it away and let it continue to get even more wonderful.
Friends, please see the comment below by Maureen about using a water bath to warm the vodka, thereby avoiding any risk of exposing the vodka to an open flame. It is a great idea and I am thankful that she added it to the discussion. I will try that method next time!