The expression “plain vanilla” strikes me as a bit of a misnomer.
The vanilla bean is the fruit of an orchid, and not just any orchid. Of the hundred or so species of vanilla-producing orchids, only two species produce a vanilla suitable for cooking. One species, vanilla planifolia, produces Bourbon vanilla, while the other species, vanilla tahitensis, produces Tahitian vanilla.
Bourbon vanilla and Tahitian vanilla are as exotic as they sound. That is, the varieties derive their names from their respective locales. Bourbon vanilla is produced from planifolia orchids grown on islands in the Indian Ocean, namely Madagascar, Comoros, and Réunion. Some three hundred years ago, Réunion was named Bourbon Island (Île Bourbon), in honor of the French royal family. Tahitian vanilla is produced from tahitensis orchids in French Polynesia (which includes Tahiti).
The different climates of each locale are responsible for the varying flavors of each variety. Bourbon vanilla beans produce a vanilla with a creamy, sweet, and mellow flavor, with a long finish. Bourbon vanilla is the vanilla most commonly used to flavor ice cream and deserts. Tahitian vanilla, meanwhile, has a flowery, fruity, and anisic flavor, and has a fleeting, but instant impact. Tahitian vanilla is recommended for pastries and fruits. Each variety can be used for extract.
Vanilla beans come in various sizes, ranging anywhere from 5 to 8 inches in length. While longer beans provide more caviar than their shorter counterparts, the length of the vanilla bean does not influence either the flavor or quality of the bean and its caviar. To find a good bean, look for an oily, plump bean with a thin skin. The bean should be moist, and neither hard nor brittle.
Unfortunately, most supermarkets charge anywhere from $2 to $5 a bean, if not more. But if you’re willing to forgo the on-site inspection, you can get a great deal online here or here. Even if you buy the beans from the supermarket, making your own extract produces an extract far superior to and cheaper than anything you can buy in the store. It’s also kind of fun!
Homemade Vanilla Extract
WHAT TO GRAB:
1-Quart Mason Jar
6 Bourbon vanilla beans, 7″ or 8″ long
1 1/2 cups Vodka
1/2 cup Rum
HOW YOU DO IT:
1. For each of the vanilla beans, cut the bean vertically, down the middle, stopping just before the tip. Using the blunt end of the knife, run the blade down the bean, scraping out all of the caviar. Empty the caviar into the mason jar. Cut the empty bean in half, and also toss it into the jar.
2. Pour the vodka and rum into the jar. Cover and shake.
3. Here comes the tedious part. Shake the jar every day for about a month. After a month, periodically shake the jar for another two to five months. The longer you let the vanilla seep, the stronger the extract will be, though you should not let it go for more than six months. (During this process, you should store the vanilla in a cupboard, or at least away from direct sunlight).
4. Place a funnel into a clean bottle (or one of your empty vanilla extract bottles). Place a coffee filter in the funnel, and pour the extract into the funnel.
5. Bottle your homemade vanilla extract! You may want to have a few extra glass bottles on hand – bottled extract makes a great gift!!
6. With the empty, used vanilla beans, dry them off and use them to make vanilla sugar!