How to make vanilla extract: The best way to use vanilla beans

Vanilla extract is an essential ingredient in baking. Without it, recipes seem flat and muted. Even when vanilla isn’t the main attraction in baked goods, it helps elevate other flavors. If you want more control over the flavor and quality of this foundational ingredient, you need to know how to make vanilla extract.

Learning how to make vanilla extract is easier than you think, and you’ll end up with a unique blend that’s perfect for your baking. Click To Tweet

Tools and ingredients needed to make homemade vanilla extract: vanilla beans, a knife, alcohol, and a clean jar.

Why DIY?

You can purchase some amazing vanilla extracts. Find everything from classic Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla, to our own cold-pressed blend of Pure Vanilla Extract, to Vanilla Bean Paste on our website.

While these are all fantastic choices, there’s a handful of reasons why you might want to also learn how to make vanilla extract. If you make your own, you can:

  • Use different liquors as the base to create unique flavors.
  • Make perfect giftable amounts in jars you’ve chosen yourself.
  • Have lots of wonderful flecks of vanilla seeds in your baked goods.
  • Get more mileage out of vanilla beans by using them to make extract and then vanilla sugar.

Convinced? We’ll show you how to make vanilla extract!

Three varieties of vanilla beans with their labels: Mexican, Tahitian, and Madagascar.

First, choose your beans

There are dozens of varieties of vanilla beans, all with their own distinctive appearance and flavor. We’re going to focus on three kinds that are readily available to home bakers. (But if you come across something else and you’d like to use it, we encourage you to experiment.)

Here’s what you should know about the flavor profile of each kind of bean:

  • Madagascar: Imparts a classic vanilla flavor that’s described as creamy and sweet. Madagascar beans are most often used to make vanilla extract; it’s familiar and comforting.
  • Tahitian: Contains floral notes as well as subtle cherry and almond overtones; pairs well with fruity desserts. It has a strong vanilla aroma.
  • Mexican: Described as woodsy with hints of spice. This vanilla variety is exciting, a perfect choice for those looking to bring something new to their baking.

Three jars of homemade vanilla extract, ready to infuse: Tahitian, Madagascar, and Mexican vanilla extract.

How many beans to use?

We generally recommend using 1 to 3 beans for every 6 ounces of vanilla extract. If you opt for small 4-ounce bottles, like the ones above, 1 fresh bean (cut into pieces) is typically sufficient.

Use more beans if you want a more robust flavor and a darker-colored extract.

Also opt for 3 vanilla beans for every 6 ounces if the beans you’re using feel slightly stiff or look dry. This means they’re likely more than a few months old. Older beans don’t have quite as much flavor potential as fresh beans, so err on the side of using more in these cases.

Three bottles of alcohol — vodka, rum, and brandy — the best choices for making homemade vanilla extract.

Choose the liquor

Now it’s time to decide which kind of liquor you’re going to use as a base for your homemade vanilla extract. You can use vodka, brandy, or another neutral-flavored liquor of your choice.

Rum can also be a good option, although you should stay away from spiced varieties. The flavor of the spices can overwhelm the vanilla beans. Same is true for bourbon — its sweet and smoky flavor can be overpowering so it’s not often used to make vanilla extract.

(What’s the deal with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla if there’s no bourbon involved? It comes from the Bourbon Island of Madagascar. Extracts are often named after the place where the vanilla beans are grown, not the alcohol used to infuse the beans.)

Lastly, avoid flavored liqueur like Grand Marnier — unless you want the flavor (in this case, orange) to come through in your vanilla extract.

How to make vanilla extract: step by step

Once you’ve acquired your beans and alcohol, you’re ready to start assembling your vanilla extract. Follow these steps:

A baker splitting a vanilla bean lengthwise to prep it for homemade vanilla extract.

1. Slit your bean length-wise

The first step to making vanilla extract is to prep your bean. Use the tip of a sharp knife to cut through the vanilla bean, exposing the tiny seeds inside. (This is sometimes called “vanilla caviar” because it’s the richest, most flavorful part of the bean.)

Leave the vanilla bean attached at the top. This will make it easier to remove later.

A baker's hands holding a Madagascar vanilla bean that's been split lengthwise to reveal the vanilla seeds inside.

2. Decide if you want flecks in your extract

Part of learning how to make vanilla extract includes deciding what you want the final extract to look like. Do you want the extract to contain lots of little vanilla bean specks or not?

Personally, I love the way baked goods look when there are flecks of real vanilla beans baked right in. (It’s similar to the effect you get when vanilla bean paste is used in recipes.) Their delightful appearance hints at the rich vanilla bean flavor to come.

If you want flecks in your extract, simply split your bean in half length-wise and leave the seeds in the vanilla pod.

A baker's hand using a knife to scrape out the vanilla seeds from the bean.

If you’d like to make your vanilla extract look purer, without any flecks, use the sharp edge of a knife to scrape out the tiny seeds after you’ve split the beans lengthwise. (Note that if you remove the seeds, the vanilla extract will take longer to infuse.)

Making vanilla extract is a perfect way to use up seedless beans if you’ve used the precious vanilla caviar for another use, like Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Pastry Cream, or Ultra-Vanilla Cupcakes.

A baker putting a split vanilla bean into an empty bottle that will be used to make homemade vanilla extract.

3. Add the bean to your jar

You can use any sized jar; just make sure it has a tight-fitting lid.

Six ounces of vanilla extract fits well in a large swing-top bottle, like the one above. I’ve also found that recycled maple syrup bottles make fantastic vessels for homemade vanilla extract.

Choose what catches your eye or what you have on hand. This is part of the fun!

4. Pour in your alcohol

Once you’ve cleaned the jar, measure out the alcohol. Pour the alcohol into the containers you’ve selected.

A baker pouring vodka into a bottle with a vanilla bean to start the process of making homemade vanilla extract.

A funnel can be helpful if you’re using a bottle with a narrow opening. I decided to test my abilities here!

Once the bottle is full of alcohol, make sure the vanilla bean is fully submerged. If any parts of the bean are sticking out, remove the bean, cut it into pieces, and return it to the bottle. Seal the jar with its cap.

Take note of the bean to liquor ratio. This way you’ll know if you should change the number of beans you use to make your next batch.

For example, my perfect ratio is 1 bean to 6 ounces of vodka infused for three months. Finding out what works best for you may take a few batches.

Three bottles of homemade vanilla extract, ready to infuse, placed in a cool and dark place.

5. Store in a cool, dark place

Now comes the hard part: waiting.

Find a safe place for your vanilla extract to rest while the beans infuse the alcohol. It should be dark and relatively cool. The refrigerator is too cold; consider storing your homemade vanilla extract in your basement or someplace outside of the kitchen. (This is often one of the warmest places in the house, especially if you’re a frequent baker.)

You can take a peek and check on your vanilla extract along the way if you like. Look at the color and give it a smell. It’s an exciting process to watch unfold!

If you left the vanilla seeds in the pod and you want to release some of the flecks, shake the bottle gently every week or so. This will help the color darker and the flavor deepen.

Three bottles of vanilla extract that have been aged for varying amounts of time: 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months.

6. Let the extract infuse

When is your extract done infusing? Extract made from vanilla beans with their seeds can be ready in as little as one month. If the seeds are removed, the extract will need at least three months to infuse.

Bottom line: There’s no exact science to determining when your vanilla extract is ready for baking. Instead, you’ll want to check out the color and smell. Look for these signs:

  • The liquid should be dark golden or brown. The darker the color, the stronger the vanilla flavor.
  • If you’ve left the vanilla seeds in the bean, there should be lots of little flecks that have settled to the bottom of the jar. When you shake it, the extract should look almost opaque.
  • There should be a noticeable vanilla aroma. Remember that your homemade vanilla extract started off as mostly alcohol, so you’ll still detect that pungent smell. However, when your vanilla extract is fully infused, you should smell the floral, sweet smell of vanilla coming through.

You can also try baking with your homemade vanilla to see if it’s ready for action. If the flavor seems subtle, put your vanilla extract back in its resting place and check it again in a month.

Once you learn how to make vanilla extract and do it a few times, it’ll become easier to tell when it’s at its prime.

A baker pouring aged vanilla extract through a sieve into a measuring cup to filter out the vanilla bean.

7. Strain (only if you want to)

At this point, you’re almost ready to bake or give your homemade vanilla extract away as a gift. You can strain it to remove any bits of the bean that you don’t want floating around in the jar.

If you’ve purposefully included the vanilla seeds in the hopes of creating a vanilla bean-flecked look, either skip the straining or use a relatively wide-meshed strainer. This will filter out any of the outer parts of the bean that have broken off, while still allowing the seeds to stream through.

If you’d like to skip straining altogether, you can simply remove the bean from the jar.

Don’t toss out that precious vanilla bean, though! Dry it off and save it for when you’re ready to make vanilla sugar, another enticing vanilla product you can make at home. We’ll show you how to make vanilla sugar (and other infused sugars) in an upcoming blog post.

Troubleshooting

The good news is that not much can go wrong when making homemade vanilla extract.

Three kinds of vanilla extract in small jars: homemade, imitation, and King Arthur Flour Pure Vanilla Extract.

Light color

Sometimes bakers fret that their vanilla extract is lighter than store-bought varieties even after they’ve let it infuse for the proper amount of time.

Don’t worry; it’s common for homemade vanilla extract to be lighter and more transparent than what you might find in the store, especially if you’re used to imitation vanilla extract (gasp!).

Oftentimes homemade vanilla extract is just as flavorful (if not more!) than store-bought, even if the color isn’t as deep. Don’t let this deter you. Give it a try in your baking and see what you think!

White fur = sugar crystals

Also, don’t worry if your vanilla beans develop a thin coating of whitish “fur.” It’s not mold — it’s simply some of the sugar in the bean that’s begun to crystallize. It won’t change the flavor or degrade your extract in any way.

On the contrary, it’s actually a sign that the beans are fresh and full of natural sugars. Applaud yourself for choosing a good source of vanilla beans if you see sugar starting to crystallize.

Can your vanilla sit for too long?

If you forget about your vanilla extract for many months (12 or more) while it’s infusing, the vanilla bean will start to break down. This is easily remedied by straining the extract before using with a fine-meshed strainer.

Your extra-aged vanilla won’t have an overwhelming taste — vanilla extract reaches a peak when all the flavor is extracted. After about six months, there’s usually very little change in the strength of the extract, even if the bean is still in the bottle.

Once you’ve removed the vanilla bean, there’s no rush to use your vanilla extract. If it’s stored in a cool, dark place (again, not the fridge but a cabinet away from the oven), it will usually retain its flavor for at least a year. After that, it’s still perfectly fine to use but you may want to add slightly more than recipes call for to make up for the slowly weakening flavor.

We think you’ll be so excited to use your homemade vanilla extract, it won’t be around for long!

Small and large bottles of vanilla extract that have been aged for varying amounts of time, as well as a few vanilla beans.

Easy steps produce a glorious ingredient

Learning how to make vanilla extract is an enjoyable, fruitful journey. You’ll explore vanilla varieties, and discover the right alcohol to use based on your flavor preferences.

It’ll also be an exercise in patience while you wait for the vanilla bean to infuse the liquor. But at the end of the process, you’ll magically be left with an aromatic extract. Give it away to the bakers in your life, and watch their faces light up. Plus keep some homemade vanilla extract for yourself!

Vanilla bean cupcakes topped with frosting and edible flowers along with two whole vanilla beans.

Our Vanilla Cake Pan Cake is a simple recipe that shows off the flavor of vanilla extract — whether you bake it as cake or cupcakes, like the ones pictured here.

Check out our favorite vanilla recipes and watch how your homemade vanilla extract shines through.

What other ingredients do you want to learn how to make at home? Brown sugar? Cake flour? Yogurt? Baking powder? Let us know in the comments, below.

Thanks to Anne Mientka for taking the photographs for this post.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Marketing Team.

comments

  1. Kathy

    I’m looking to purchase some beans and want to use the Madagascar ones, but I only see it as Madagascar bourbon…is this what I want? Thank you…Kathy

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kathy! Those are the ones you’re looking for. The “bourbon” is actually referring to the Bourbon Islands in Madagascar where the vanilla beans are harvested. Annabelle@KAF

    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      You can do that, Tracy, but the extract will take much longer to infuse if you don’t expose the inside of the beans. If you’ve got the time (about 6 months), then you’re welcome to take this route. The benefit with this approach is after you’ve made your first batch of extract, you can remove the bean and then split it for your next batch, which will be full of flavor and quick to infuse. Kye@KAF

  2. Joe

    I’m making vanilla right now, but I never read about splitting the bean. Is that a must? Can I pull them and split them now? They’ve been soaking in vodka for 3 months already.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi, Joe. You ask a good question. Your vanilla extract will still infuse with flavor even if you don’t split the bean. However, the process will be much faster and you’ll end up with a darker color if you split the bean before adding it to the alcohol. The vanilla seeds contain much of the vanilla flavor, so exposing them directly to the liquid ensures a flavorful extract. If your extract isn’t very dark or flavorful at this point, you can pull out the beans, split them, and return them to their jars. Only do this if you’re not satisfied with the color and flavor of your extract as it is now. Try giving it a taste; mix 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract in 6 ounces of whole milk and taste. If it’s vanilla-forward and delicious, your vanilla is done! Try splitting your beans in the next batch of extract you make. Good luck! Kye@KAF

    2. Julie

      I have my third jar started and there is nothing better then Homemade vanilla extract to add to fresh bakegoods. It’s worth the cost.

  3. Sheryl

    I currently have Madagascar Vanilla Beans soaking in a bottle of Crown Royal Rye Whisky. I used 15 beans to a 500 ml bottle, roughly 25 oz. I use a lot of vanilla as I make and sell various candies, and other sweets. It’s not quite ready to use yet, but the flavor is developing nicely.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi, Deb. While I haven’t tried using grain alcohol to make homemade vanilla extract, I did some research and it sounds like some bakers like to use grain alcohol to make their extract. Most people who choose this ingredient dilute the grain alcohol with water before using to ensure the alcohol content isn’t too high. I personally like the flavor that comes through when vodka is used, but feel free to experiment. Good luck! Kye@KAF

    2. Tori Cordova

      I didn’t care for the vanilla extract I made using Everclear. It turned the vanilla a yellow color rather than brown and the taste was too strong of alcohol.

    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      You make me blush, Floranet! Thanks for the positive feedback and for reading our blog. You can expect more blog posts from me soon. 🙂 Kye@KAF

  4. Melanie

    I love reading all the articles, but I especially love the comments. I have learned a lot from those. I have made my own vanilla for years, until the price of the beans and lack of time put a crimp in my baking. I would like to see the blogs on yogurt and baking powder. And even though I have made vanilla sugar in the past, I’m sure there is a lot I don’t know.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      A request for yogurt, baking powder, and vanilla sugar — noted, Melanie! (We have an older blog post about making homemade yogurt that you can check out while we look into revamping this article; the content is still spot on.) Thanks for reading! Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Vick! You can find them in most grocery stores, on our website, or many other places online such as Amazon. It just depends on how many you’re looking to purchase, larger quantities will be more cost effective at a natural food store where you can buy in bulk or on Amazon. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Martha

    I purchased King Arthur Flour’s homemade vanilla extract kit to give as Christmas gifts. It was easy to make and everyone loved their gift. I did buy extra vanilla beans, so each bottle had three beans. One thing I didn’t see mentioned here is that, per King Arthur Flour’s instructions, once the bottling is completed they need to be shaken every day. Perfect gift!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      We’re glad to hear you’ve dipped your toes into the world of making homemade vanilla extract, Martha. While some instructions may call for regular shaking of the bottles, we’ve found it’s not necessary to do this every day. You can shake the bottle regularly if you’re looking to release the vanilla seeds and end up with a heavily-flecked final product, although you’ll still get wonderful flavor if you simply let the bean infuse without shaking the bottle. Do what works for you – that’s the beauty of making your own extract! Kye@KAF

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