Best Vanilla Extract

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It’s hard to find a good vanilla extract that has strong, true flavor, and doesn’t cost a million bucks.

Vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world after saffron, mainly due to how manually intensive production is. The plants are pollinated by hand, and take about five years from the time they are planted before the beans are ready for market.

Popular opinion seems to be that Nielsen-Massey vanillas are some of the best. They’re carried by the likes of Williams-Sonoma and other high-end cooking shops. The company makes a handful of different kinds of vanillas, including a vanilla bean paste which I’ve been itching to try.

Penzey’s spices also carries their own brand, in a couple different strengths and varieties. Their double-strength extract has fantastic flavor, but, as of this writing, costs about $46 for a 16 oz. bottle. A steep investment for one ingredient, especially since I do a fair amount of baking.

In the end, I started my own in 2002 with some Stoli and a half-dozen whole vanilla beans from Trader Joe’s (at the time, I think they were selling two beans for maybe $4).

Half of me wanted to save a few bucks, and the other half wanted to see if it would be any good. It’s gotten strong and richer over the years, and it’s definitely a work in progress. I add more beans and/or vodka once or twice a year, as needed.

This picture is a little lighter than normal, because I just added a few more beans and topped it off.

Copyright 2008 The Hungry Mouse�/Jessica B. Konopa. All rights reserved.

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Jessie Cross is a cookbook author and creator of The Hungry Mouse, a monster online food blog w/500+ recipes. When she's not shopping for cheese or baking pies, Jessie works as an advertising copywriter in Boston. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband and two small, fluffy wolves.


  1. This is a good cost saving project. I've made several batches of homemade vanilla and it's good and comes in handy for my baking and desserts.