making extracts: the one-stop guide

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When it comes to extracts, some of the fine details can be a bit of a mystery: ideal alcohol percentage, whether citrus pith should be included, and detailed information about non-alcoholic extracts. While this article doesn’t include perfected extract recipes, it may fill in the gaps for other recipes you’ve found. You can visit my follow-up post for a side-by-side taste testing of my homemade extract experiments vs. store-bought extracts.

first, a vanilla extract update

pouring bourbon while making extracts

Earlier this year, I made a big batch of vanilla extract. I used one ounce of Ugandan vanilla beans, scraped and chopped, per 8 ounces of 80 proof bourbon.

I also made a smaller batch on the side. In this batch, I used grade B mixed origin vanilla beans (mixed origin=an assortment of different beans). After just a couple of months, the mixed origin batch smelled really potent. I started using it but left the beans in the bottle to continue steeping.

Ugandan vanilla beans have a unique sweet and chocolaty smell that the mixed origin beans don’t have, but the Ugandan beans turned out to have a much more subdued flavor and aroma than the mixed origin ones. I’m glad I used bourbon for both extracts–it’s an especially welcome addition to the mellow flavor of the Ugandan vanilla extract. 

artificial vanilla

The more complex flavors that come from vanilla beans don’t make it through the baking process.

Several reliable sources–most notably Cook’s Illustrated–have done blind taste tests and concluded that artificial vanilla is indistinguishable from real vanilla in cooked recipes. That’s not to say that they taste identical; it’s just that the taste of one is neither objectively better or worse than the other. If using artificial vanilla is an option that’s on the table for you, it would be a prudent choice for recipes where the vanilla is added before or during cooking. 

If natural vanilla is non-negotiable for you, your best choice of bean for cooked recipes is whatever is strongest and most economical. Prices of vanilla beans change a lot, so the type that’s most affordable when you’re shopping will likely vary. 

choosing vanilla beans for making extracts

scraping vanilla beans for making extracts

Individual varieties like Ugandan, Tahitian, or Madagascar are great to experiment with when you’re adding vanilla to recipes that aren’t cooked, or if you’re stirring it in at the very end of the cooking process. 

Vanilla beans are reusable for a handful of extraction cycles. To take advantage of this, I occasionally top off my little bottle with the big bottle of Ugandan vanilla and then top off the big bottle with more bourbon. Meanwhile, the beans stay submerged in the bottles. This way I can continue to steep and get my money’s worth from the vanilla beans for very little effort, and the little bottle is always ready to use. A lot of people who use this method refer to the big jar as their “mother” jar.

Using the mother jar method, I expect my vanilla beans to start losing their punch someday. When this day comes, I’ll just slowly begin adding more beans to the bottle.

liquor choices

Bourbon makes a great alcohol choice for vanilla extract, because bourbon flavor pairs very naturally with vanilla and seems to taste good in everything that vanilla does. But I want to keep the flavors more simple today since I’ll be comparing the flavor to store-bought extracts. So I’m using vodka. Other options for your extracts include light or dark rum, gin, tequila, or brandy.

ideal alcohol percentage for making extracts

ABV is a major consideration when choosing liquor for extracts. Both the water and the alcohol content of the liquor are important for thorough flavor extraction. No matter which type of liquor is used, try to aim for 70 to 100 proof (35% to 50% alcohol by volume). Too low of an alcohol content could allow the mixture to ferment, while too much could make the solids brittle and dry, prematurely halting the extraction process. I’m using an 80 proof, bottom-shelf vodka for my extracts.

making extracts without alcohol

vodka for making extracts

A lot of people wish to–or need to–completely avoid using alcohol. Unfortunately, there’s no great substitute for alcohol when making extracts. There is, however, a useful method using vegetable glycerin.

For vanilla extract, you can substitute the alcohol with a mixture of food-grade glycerin to water at a ratio of 3:1. While this does work, it will take longer to infuse than an alcohol-based extract and unfortunately won’t provide the same flavor profiles.

The glycerin mixture should be usable for the vanilla, chocolate, and lavender extracts since the solids have very little water content. However, it may not be suitable for higher-moisture ingredients like citrus peels.

glycerin is antimicrobial…but with a caveat

I have some reservations about using the glycerin method for lemon and orange extract due to the water content of the zest. Glycerin doesn’t have the same antimicrobial properties as alcohol, so lemon and orange zest could potentially serve as incubators for undesired bacteria.

It’s important to note that, while glycerin is antimicrobial, it is not antimicrobial in the same way that alcohol is. Alcohol is toxic to microorganisms because it denatures and kills them. In the preservation of solids, glycerin preserves things by simply sealing out oxygen and slowly drawing away moisture. This deprives unwanted bacteria of the environment they need in order to reproduce; but it does not kill them on contact.

Lemon and orange extract recipes require a large amount of zest in order to work. My concern about glycerin is this: since the glycerin draws water out of the zest, this significant added moisture in the glycerin/water mixture could push the glycerin concentration below 50%. Concentrations below 50% have the potential to promote microbial growth instead of hindering it.

I have found anecdotal evidence in various blogs that the glycerin mixture is suitable for lemon and orange extracts. But since none of them address the bacteria issue, I can’t personally endorse it. If any food safety experts happen past, I would love your input in the comments!

other non-alcoholic choices for making extracts

halved lemons

The truth is, using glycerin is second rate.

Glycerin extraction simply doesn’t offer the depth of flavor that alcohol extraction offers. But it’s not such a bad thing! There are other ways to flavor foods and drinks besides extracts, and a lot of them are super fun. Consider taking a new route altogether—this is a great opportunity for creativity!

To start, many flavoring agents can be made into sugars or pastes for use in place of extract.

Vanilla paste is made using vanilla beans, corn syrup, and sugar. A similar mixture can be made using lemons.

Whip up some lemon or orange sugar by blending candied zest with sugar to create a granular mix. For lavender sugar, simply process lavender buds and granulated sugar to a fine powder. You could even powder the lavender buds alone and use them on their own.

An extra bonus to these alternatives? You don’t have to wait to use them!


small glass jars for making extracts

These are the 4-ounce bottles I’m using. Whether you use dark bottles or regular bottles is up to you. Dark bottles will prevent UV degradation in some extracts. However, I can’t find any concrete evidence proving that keeping out every ray of light has a noticeable effect on the taste. As long as you’re keeping the extract in some sort of cabinet or drawer, it will probably be fine in regular glass.

If you think you’ll be keeping your bottle of extract around for a very extended time, or if there’s frequent light exposure in the place you’re storing it, then storing it in amber glass would be the safer choice. If you’re determined to protect your extracts without purchasing special bottles, you can cover the bottles using fabric or paper.

what I’m extracting

Today I’m making lemon, orange, chocolate, and lavender extracts.

Lemon and orange are two of the most common extracts found at the supermarket. I chose lavender because it’s a slightly more niche flavoring, but is not entirely uncommon. The chocolate extract is just a fun experiment; I’m imagining putting it into chocolate recipes to give an extra flavor boost.

what about almond extract?

I’d like to give an honorable mention to almond extract. Almond extract is the second most popular flavoring used in baking in the U.S., so it would be nice if I could include it. But almond extract comes from the oil of bitter almonds, which contain far more traditional almond flavor compounds than typical sweet almonds.

The Problem? Bitter almonds are poisonous when raw and unrefined–so poisonous that the retail sale of unrefined bitter almonds is banned in the U.S. So for almond extract, I recommend just sticking with store-bought.

lemon extract

To make lemon extract, start with freshly washed and dried lemons. Use a vegetable peeler to remove just the outer yellow part of the peel. The good thing about using a vegetable peeler is that the big flat pieces of peel make it easy to find and remove any bits of the white pith, which could add a bitter taste to the extract. If you have a lemon zester, that would work even better. 

side note on citrus peels

The white pith of a lemon isn’t bitter on its own, but there’s good reason to leave it out. When the components of the zest and pith are broken down and combined, whether physically or chemically, a chemical reaction occurs that creates an intense bitterness. So that’s why it’s important to remove the pith for a lot of recipes, including this one. I filled my jar with loosely packed lemon zest and then topped it up with vodka. It took 5 lemons to fill my jar. I put the zested lemons aside to make some strawberry lemonade.

why isn’t making extracts more exact?

What my vanilla experience showed me earlier was that at home, without the strictly controlled ingredients and advanced testing equipment that a company like McCormick would have, making extracts is an art as much as it is a science. The flavor that comes out reflects the flavor that’s put in; produce like vanilla beans and citrus fruits naturally vary in flavor and intensity. Creative alcohol choices add additional variation.

So at home, an exact recipe that will produce an exact intensity of flavor isn’t super realistic. But that’s okay! We all have different preferences anyway. 

[please note: after a follow-up taste test, I learned that the peel amounts for both the lemon and orange extracts should be increased significantly to achieve a flavor that’s detectable after cooking.]

orange extract

I made the orange extract in the same way I made the lemon. It took 4 oranges.

lavender extract

For the lavender extract, I filled the jar 1/3 of the way with dried lavender petals, which I found in the spice section of my grocery store, and topped it off from there. When I made my lavender extract, my kitchen immediately filled with the smell of lavender. I have a feeling it could get really strong.

chocolate extract

Last, but not least, I’m making chocolate extract using raw cacao nibs. I’m making two batches–one steeped in my homemade vanilla extract, and one in vodka.
I filled the bottles up halfway with cacao nibs and topped them off. I will be back with the taste results in my next post.


I recommend straining floral extracts as soon as the taste is to your liking. While extra potent vanilla might be appetizing, potent lavender extract can turn a delicate lavender butter cookie into potpourri. Keeping the extract ingredients submerged in alcohol is important for maintaining quality. I recommend straining any in-use extracts as soon as possible, because the solids will get exposed to the air pretty quickly once you start to use it.

making extracts: the wait

To keep my experiment simple, I’m steeping all of my extracts for the same amount of time–two months. You might find that you prefer a different amount of time for your extracts to get them just the way you want. To see my extracts go head-to-head with their store-bought counterparts, visit my follow-up taste test here.

What other cooking and baking projects have you been you working on? Let me know in the comments below!

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