How do you prepare your vanilla beans before they take their "alcohol bath", as many of our extract friends say. There are pros and cons to slicing, knotting, cutting and folding. Here's a quick video with some tips and more information is below in greater detail. 

This is one of the biggest debates in the at-home-vanilla-extract-making world! Given the price of the beans, we all want to be careful how we treat each pod and we certainly don't want to do anything that creates waste. We want to squeeze every ounce of vanilla essence out of the pod and the caviar inside. Here are a few tips from our pros. 

Cutting the Beans

There are two primary reasons to cut the beans:

  1. When you are making extract, you want the bean fully submerged in alcohol. Some beans are simply too big for the bottle and need to be cut. 
  2. Extract making takes a long time. Cutting the bean may decrease the time it takes for your extracts to be ready. 

Submersing the vanilla bean entirely means that every square millimeter of your bean is providing extract. It will also ensure that no part of the bean is oxidizing as it is sitting above the alcohol line. (A trick for the non-bean cutters is to simply fold the bean or even tie a small knot in the bean to ensure that it is fully submerged) 

Cutting the vanilla bean open to expose the inside of the pod does result in more surface-area contact between the alcohol and the outside and inside of the pod. Many people believe and have experienced that this process expedites the time that the extract is ready. Some DIY extract makers have told us that by cutting the bean open they have a great tasting extract in just 90-120 days. Scientifically, this does make sense as cutting the bean open provides more surface area contact with the pod and the alcohol, and the more surface area contact the faster the extraction. This is true.

However, our experience typically concludes that whether you cut the vanilla beans or leave them whole, waiting a full year will give you the maximum flavor. Remember that there are more than 300 flavor compounds in vanilla beans and, with time and patience, you can increase the likelihood of tasting each one. If the beans are sliced can the extract be ready faster? Yes but not by much. We have made countless extracts with whole and sliced beans and it seems that the 1 year mark is when peak sweetness is reached.  

That being said, extract making at home is as much about the art as it is about the science. After taste testing your vanilla extract, if you believe it is delicious after 90 - 120 days, then you are certainly free to use it. Many DIY extract makers that prefer cutting the vanilla beans have experienced what they believe is a great-tasting, finished vanilla extract in less time. 

There are a few cons to cutting open your beans:

  1. It is harder to reuse the bean after extraction
  2. It is more difficult to harvest the bean caviar after extraction
  3. You lose the caviar in the extract. It's poured out inside the extract when you're baking. 

Leaving the Beans Whole

There are two primary benefits to leaving your vanilla beans whole:

  1. Vanilla extract makers will tell you that there is a richer vanilla taste when the vanillin is extracted by seeping through an uncut vanilla pod. 
  2. It's easy to harvest the caviar or reuse the bean when your extract is finished. 

We have tested both cut and uncut beans in our extract. After one year, we did notice that whole bean extracts were slightly sweeter in our experiments...but it was hard for us to tell. We also noticed that whole bean extract still had more of an "alcohol" taste at 6 months and even 9 months. Whereas the cut bean begins to take on more of a finished extract taste in 90-120 days. As mentioned above, this doesn't mean it it is finished and ready in 90-120 days, it just means that in 90-120 days we could recognize more vanilla flavor. 

However, getting a second use out of a whole bean was a lot easier than it was from a cut bean. It was easy to slice open the beans and remove the caviar after a year, and then use the caviar in vanilla sugar or vanilla bean paste. It was really easy to put the whole beans into a mother jar for a second round of extract. 

The cons of leaving your beans whole:

  1. Some extract makers believe it takes longer for your extract to be ready. 
  2. You don't get the "speckles" in your extract from the caviar that many bakers love. 

So what is the right way to make vanilla extract? The answer is...your way. Experiment, have fun and let us know how it turns out! 

Here's a video that shows two different extracts that are both 3 months old. One has split beans and the other has whole beans:

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