Vanilla is one of our most beloved spices, adding richness to foods enjoyed around the world. It’s also one of the world’s most expensive spices. But vanilla beans are easy to turn into vanilla extract—and save you money in the process.
On a recent visit to a botanical garden southeast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I saw firsthand how vanilla is produced. The garden produces and sells vanilla products to help sustain its amazing collections and programming.
Vanilla beans are produced by a vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia)—a climbing vine that can reach more than 30 feet in length. Once planted, it takes three years to generate vanilla beans. The flowers are hand-pollinated on most vanilla plantations, and the beans are left on the vine to ripen for seven to nine months. When the beans turn from bright green to yellow-green, they are harvested by hand. In Mexico, the harvest season begins in mid-December, after which the beans are dried to develop vanilla’s distinctive flavor and aroma. All of this intensive handwork contributes to its high cost.
Most Americans use imitation or artificial vanilla extract because it is inexpensive and easy to find. But real vanilla extract is simple to make, requiring just two ingredients. You can purchase vanilla beans locally at HyVee and Costco, or find them online.
3 vanilla beans
2 cups vodka, bourbon or rum
- Cut a slit length-wise down each vanilla bean and scrape out the tiny black seeds. Add the vanilla beans and all the seeds to a clean pint-sized mason jar.
- Add the spirits to the jar, covering the beans and seeds. Seal the jar with its lid and store in a cool, dark place for at least two months before using.
- To extract the flavorful oils, give the jar a shake once a week.
Here is a cocktail recipe that uses your vanilla extract and makes a great after-dinner drink! The energetic shaking produces a caramelly foam head to the cocktail.
Makes 1 cocktail
1 ounce vodka
1 ounce cognac
1 ounce Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons espresso
1 tablespoon simple syrup
Pinch of salt
Orange twist (for garnish)
- Rub the rim of a martini glass with the orange twist.
- Add all of the ingredients (except the garnish) to a cocktail shaker and add ice. Shake until chilled and frothy, strain into the martini glass.
- Twist the orange over the top of the cocktail and enjoy. PM
You can also find fair trade organic vanilla beans at Global Village, just off Prospect at 1308 Seiberling in Peoria Heights. Hours are 11-5 Tuesday-Saturday. Fair trade means producers are paid a living wage, use sustainable materials and processes, and give back to their communities through projects like schools and water systems. Shop locally and help globally.