The best vanilla extract in the whole wide world

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners -
Bottle of Kit’s finished vanilla. - Courtesy photos

It’s getting to be near that time of year when everyone is wondering what to bring as a hostess gift. With a little forethought why not bring a bottle of your homemade vanilla extract? If that thought appeals to you, now is the time to implement the plan for it takes about three months to achieve the proper depth of flavor.

For complicated reasons dealing with climate change and bad crops, vanilla beans are very expensive, as is vanilla extract. Vanilla beans are now so valuable that farmers must hire armed guards to protect their crops. Be prepared to spend about $135 for ¼ pound of vanilla beans, which will make approximately three liters of extract.

Originating in Mexico, vanilla beans come from the vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia. This orchid, actually a large vine, can grow in the 20 degree band around the equator. Mexico dominated the vanilla market for three centuries because it was also home to the tiny Melipone bee that happily pollinated the orchid’s flowers — without pollination there can be no beans.

In 1836 a Belgian botanist realized that the bee, who is only happy in Mexico, was responsible for the necessary pollination. With this knowledge, vanilla growers outside of Mexico began to hand pollinate the orchid flowers, thereby enabling the industry to expand to the Bourbon Islands, India, Indonesia, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea. Today, Mexico produces only a fraction of the world’s production of vanilla beans.

The vines are at least three years old before they begin to produce flowers, which are hermaphroditic, containing both the male and female reproductive organs. By pressing the sigma and the anther together, self-pollination occurs. This is no easy feat as the vines are quite large and the flower lasts for only one day — timing is of the essence here.

The resulting beans will remain on the vines for nine months, gradually turning from green to yellow in color. Lacking aroma or flavor, the beans must be cured before they take on the familiar vanilla fragrance.

The curing process takes nine months, during which they are bathed, given daily sunbaths while spending their nights sweating in wooden crates. Eventually the bean will be only 20% of its original size.

Tahitian vanilla beans, a product of Vanilla tahitensis, a hybrid of V. aromatic and V. fragrans, have a slightly different flavor. After spending ten days in a cool place, the beans then undergo the sunbathing-sweating ritual before spending forty days in a cool storage space. The resulting beans produce a lovely vanilla extract.

Today, 90% of vanilla beans come from Madagascar and Indonesia. However, it’s advisable to avoid Indonesian beans due to indifferent curing practices. Uganda gold beans are superlative so buy them when they are available. A good source for beans is:

To make vanilla extract: Beans may be bought in bulk online. Slit the beans, thereby exposing the flavorful insides and fill suitable glass bottles — I found ones with china flip tops at Amazon. Then fill the bottles with vodka: This doesn’t have to be the best, most refined vodka but it shouldn’t be rotgut vodka either. The vodka will quickly take on the brown color of the beans. Shake the bottles occasionally and in three months you will have delicious vanilla extract for those brownies you like to make. The extract only gets better and better so leave the beans in the bottles.

This is a gift you can give with pride. No one will know how easy it is to produce a gallon of vanilla extract — and yes, I have recently produced a whole gallon, demonstrating that perhaps I need a life.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners

Bottle of Kit’s finished vanilla. of Kit’s finished vanilla.Courtesy photos

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn