Home-made vanilla extract

my first ever jar of home-made vanilla extract

There’s a spice trail to my house. It’s followed by friends who show up at my door with exotic ingredients.
You see, I live in rural Umbria. I can have some of the best olive oil in the world, some of the best prosciutto. I can have truffles and wild asparagus. Pecorino of all sorts and flavors. Fantastic.
However, I can’t buy lemon grass or kaffir lime, nor a decent garam masala. Nor pak choi, nor preserved lemons. I can go on, but the list is too long. Umbrians are very traditional people and believe to have the best food in the world. As a consequence they don’t need to import any of this foreign craziness.
I cant’ blame them, even though I love variety, but vanilla? I’ve returned to Italy 11 years ago and I’m still not able to buy good quality vanilla extract here in Umbria. Italian sweets are generally flavored with lemon zest or with the vile artificial vanillin.
Those of you who have been at my cooking classes know of my vanilla problem.
Then – a couple of months ago – I was observing two beautiful organic vanilla beans which my lovely friend Sandra  had carried all the way from Canada. Should I have a blast and make some gelato? Mmmm, no….. I thought them too precious to waste for a single occasion.
Instead I took the scissors and snipped them into 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces, placed them into a jam jar and poured 1/2 cup of brandy in it.
I closed the jar, placed it inside a cupboard and forgot about it until yesterday. No gimmicks, no shaking, no scraping off the seeds, no expensive liqueur, just my regular cooking brandy.
It turns out this is the best vanilla extract I ever had. Full bodied, dark amber almost chocolatey in color and a flavor bomb. I’ll have to use it in drops.
In addition and to my deep satisfaction it’s free of the artificial additives, sweeteners and it’s pesticide free as I have used organic beans. And quite inexpensive (we have a crisis don’t we?)
Please go out now and find yourself some vanilla beans. If you like me live in the wilderness you might need to use a good source of specialty foods online.
You only need to forget that jar for a couple of months, it does not get any easier.

A vanilla plantation in a “shader” (ombrière) on Réunion Island (photo from Wikimedia)


  1. Well, this was eye opening! I had no idea how vanilla extract is made. (And it just so happens I have a package of vanilla beans from Zanzibar!) Grazie, Madonna del Piatto.

    • Hi Jann. The funny thing is that I have been making all sort of liqueurs using alcohol and fruit/herbs. The concept is in fact the same except at much higher concentration of plant (vanilla) and lower of alcohol (my brandy was only 36° proof). Logic!

  2. First time I see vanilla in its natural state. I had no idea it great on a vine–somehow I thought it grew on some sort of tropical tree… Live and learn, as they say!

  3. Top of the morning to you Letizia! What a simple and wonderful receipe! I will have to try it. We are getting a much needed gentle rain today.

  4. Very innovative! I will try this recipe (with brandy) for vanilla extract. Like Frank, I thought vanilla grew on a tree not on a vine! Learning something new everyday!!! Thanks for the photo and the tip with brandy xx

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