I’m obsessed with vanilla. To be honest, if I think I messed up a recipe, I usually just add vanilla and hope for the best. Vanilla ice cream, vanilla chia seed pudding, vanilla pancakes, you can’t go wrong. So, when I found out there was a vanilla farm on the Big Island of Hawaii, I eagerly dragged my family along for the 2 hour car ride up into the hillsides above Hilo.
The Hawaiian Vanilla Farm, run by Jim Reddekopp and his family, began in 1989 and is the only commercial vanilla farm in the United States. My family and I attended the “luncheon experience” where we dined on all things vanilla, and went on a tour of the farm.
After reading that we would be eating a vanilla grilled chicken sandwich with vanilla caramelized onions as our main meal, accompanied by a salad and potatoes with vanilla seasoning as well, we were a little worried that it would be vanilla overload. However, at the luncheon, Reddekopp taught us that vanilla can be used to round out the acidity in dishes, rather than just sweeten them.
On the tour, we learned about the challenging process of farming vanilla. Did you know that vanilla beans come from orchid flowers and can only be grown in locations that are between 10 and 20 degrees south or north of the equator? Or that each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening?
Even though I love vanilla so much, good vanilla extract is expensive for a college budget. It can run anywhere from a few cents per ounce (for the cheap imitation kind) to a few dollars per ounce for high quality extract. Knockoff vanilla extract is high in vanillin, a flavor similar to Tahitian vanilla, however it can leave a chemical aftertaste in many of your recipes.
So, on my tour, when I found out that I could make vanilla extract that would last me years with cheap vodka, I was blown away. The best part: it’s so ridiculously simple, I would trust anyone to make it.
All you need is three vanilla beans, sliced down the middle, a glass container, and some cheap leftover alcohol.
Fill up your bottle with your drink of choice and stick it in a cabinet for three months. Shake it every so often, and after three months have passed, take out 1/3rd of the extract, and top off the original bottle with the same cheap vodka. That 1/3rd you removed is now your perfect, pure vanilla extract. Once you finish it, repeat the same process over and over again and you’ll have vanilla extract that will last you a lifetime.
If you’re wondering where to find these magical Hawaiian vanilla beans, you can find their website here. I’m not the only one obsessed with the vanilla farm, either – Los Angeles Times reporter April Orcutt just visited and wrote about her experience as well.