I love making my own vanilla essence at home, since it’s so easy and economical, and also just a really enjoyable (and fragrant!) process to get involved in. I simply slice the beans into quarters (usually two per batch), place in a clean glass bottle and fill it up with vodka. Allow them to macerate for two to three months, then come back to find the most wonderful-smelling concoction! Once it’s ready, you can either use the essence straight from the bottle (since the beans will stay at the bottom, given that the neck of the bottle isn’t too wide) or decant into another bottle. The homemade essence makes a lovely addition to just about any sweet recipe, and also make a great zero-waste, DIY gift that is actually useful for the recipient! I gave the last of my most recent batch to a work colleague for Christmas and he was absolutely thrilled to receive it!
Once the bottle has been emptied, just fill it up again and keep going until you aren’t getting any more colour out of the beans. Simple! Once this is done, however, you will end up with something like this:
What to do with the beans now? Upcycle them, of course!
Here’s what upcycling is, according to Wikipedia:
“Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.”
I’ve only really heard it used in the context of repurposing would-be discarded materials (like turning an old suitcase into a pet bed, for example), but I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t apply to food, too. When I think about it, there are so many by-products of food preparation that aren’t usually used again, the vanilla beans here being just one of many!
Here are three creative ideas for repurposing your vanilla beans, post-essence:
Just make sure you have a high-powered blender if you want to do this, otherwise you may end up with chunks of vanilla bean throughout. I have an Optimum brand one and highly recommend it. I bought it online ages ago, and it just keeps on going and going. Such a wonderful investment – it will break up pretty much anything!
(The smoothie pictured didn’t actually contain upcycled vanilla beans – although I have made some that did and they worked perfectly, so it is tried and tested – but you get the idea…original Instagram post is here if you’d like to read what was in this one!)
2. Energy bars/bites/balls
There are plenty of recipes out there you could follow, but I recommend just throwing everything into your blender/processor and seeing what happens! You’ll need some dates and nuts to form the base, but beyond that the sky’s the limit, really. The beauty of just throwing everything together is that you get to try something different each time, and that there are endless possibilities for using up leftover bits and bobs from the pantry. The ones below consisted of pitted dates (soaked in warm water to soften), the last of the almonds that were too stale to be eaten by the handful, some ground ginger, some (ageing) grated fresh ginger, ground cardamom, desiccated coconut, and, of course a couple of vanilla bean segments! I simply rolled them into small logs then coated them in desiccated coconut, then popped into a container in the fridge. The leftover desiccated coconut pictured I have put back in the fridge to put in the next batch.
3. Macerated dried fruit
This is something I started doing a few months back and we are now completely addicted! You’ll need a clean glass jar and some dried fruit and liquor of your choice (I use rum and preservative-free pitted prunes). Simply put the fruit in the jar, cover in the liquor, add a few segments of vanilla bean, seal and wait. I recommend allowing the fruit to macerate for at least 24 hours, otherwise it won’t have absorbed any of the liquid so it won’t be wonderfully squidgy and boozy! I like to leave the mixture for up to a week, stirring once every day or so to ensure the fruit on the top does not become dry.
Once ready, be sure to serve them for dessert over vanilla ice cream. I promise you will go to heaven and back!
So, if you haven’t made it yet, I hope you will try your hand at making your own vanilla essence, and see if you can come up with some creative new ways to repurpose the used beans!