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What type of alcohol should I use for homemade vanilla extract?

Homemade vanilla extract is most commonly made with vodka, but you can use white rum, bourbon and brandy. The alcohol you choose needs to be at least 70 proof to work its magic. You don't need to splash out on an expensive brand; a middle-priced bottle will do. Spend your money on high-quality whole vanilla beans because the sweet, classic extract flavour comes from your precious pods.

Vodka is popular because it is tasteless and odourless. It remains in the background and allows the sweet, fragrant vanilla flavour to shine through. Most store-bought vodka contains 40 percent alcohol, making it 80 proof. Vanilla extract must be made with a minimum of 70 proof alcohol to be called pure, so choosing vodka is an easy option.

White rum adds a much sweeter note and is perfect if you’re using vanilla extract to make ice cream, pastries and desserts. Rum is distilled from pure sugarcane or sugarcane by-products. It is repeatedly refined like vodka, creating a smooth and mellow undertone. You also have the choice of dark, gold or spiced rum, which all lend a heavier, richer flavour to warm, savoury dishes.

Bourbon lends a slightly smoky, sweet taste to vanilla extract. It is clean like vodka, but it adds to the sweetness of the extract without overpowering the delicate vanilla flavour. Bourbon is not as sweet as white rum and is more versatile for sweet and savoury dishes.

Aged brandy gives up a sweet taste with fruity notes. It strikes a good balance between the tasteless, odourless flavour of vodka and the overpowering sweetness of rum. Brandy-based vanilla extract is versatile, marrying well with sweet, savoury, cold and warm dishes as well as hot beverages and delicious cocktails.

What does 80 proof mean?

Alcohol content is measured as alcohol by volume (ABV). In other words, what percentage of liquid in a bottle is alcohol. Proof is twice the alcohol content by volume. Vodka that is 80 proof contains 40 percent alcohol. Whisky is traditionally 100 proof, meaning it has 50 percent alcohol. The FDA stipulates pure vanilla extract needs to be at least 70 proof, containing 35 percent alcohol. 

Can I make vanilla extract without alcohol?

Alcohol is the easiest way to extract the rich, delicious flavour from vanilla pods, but you can make homemade vanilla extract without it for religious or health reasons. Alcohol-free vanilla extract is sugar- and gluten-free, and the vegetable glycerin used in the recipe is vegan-friendly.

Alcohol-free extract does not meet the FDA's definition of pure extract and is referred to as vanilla flavouring. It is hard to find in the shops, but it's effortless to make your own. All you need is three ingredients: quality vanilla beans, food-grade vegetable glycerin and water. Amazon sells food-grade vegetable glycerin if you can't find it at your local grocery store.

Method

Mix three parts glycerin and one part water. Add to a clean, sterile glass bottle with an airtight lid. Add three vanilla beans for every cup of glycerin, slice them lengthwise and leave the ends intact. Submerge the vanilla beans in the liquid, put the cap or lid on the bottle and store in a dark, cool place.

Alcohol-free extract needs more time to mature, so be patient. Shake the bottle a few times a month and keep it out of direct sunlight. Alcohol-free vanilla extract is not as rich and dark as an extract made with alcohol, but it will have as much flavour if you give it enough time to brew.

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