Better Basics: Extracts

Posted on January 29, 2012

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Over the holidays, Dustin’s grandma sent us some of her recipes, including an old-school anise candy recipe that I’ve been curious about for a while now. We had anise seed and star anise around the house from previous cooking ventures, but none of the anise extract that we’d need for candy making. Being us, this turned, of course, into an extract-making venture. And while we’re at it, let’s give that vanilla and cinnamon extract another try too, why not?

Cinnamon, Vanilla, Anise Extracts

Lessons learned: Less is more ...

These vanilla, cinnamon, and anise extracts came out beautifully, in large part I think because we went with a small-batch approach.  Smaller jars, less booze — this seems to be the trick.  We used vodka on this round, both because we don’t drink vodka much (what better way to use up neglected booze), but also because if you’re using a clear booze, you can see the extract turn brown as it develops flavor — so you know you’re making progress:

Extract success!

Extract success!

It was nice to do that this time, since we’ve had mixed success with extracts in the past.  I have two theories: either your base booze makes a big difference, or, it’s all about the booze-to-stuff ratio.  It’s probably the latter. If you’re going to try this, I’d suggest small bottles.

From past projects, we’ve had some success but also some that are still not taking on much flavor.  We’ve had a vanilla+brandy sitting in the cupboard for over a year, and whoa does that still smell boozy.  This one has two issues. First, it was one bean to about 1.5 cups of booze.  This is probably the root of the problem.  That ratio seems not to be working — unless perhaps you tried a fresh/whole bean and, frankly, that feels silly.  I’m more inclined to use the bean pod, not its seeds (i.e. the seeds go into tasty things like this mascarpone tart) for an extract.

At the same time, I can’t help wondering if the base booze itself might also be making a difference.  While the vanilla+brandy trial hasn’t come close after nearly a year (maybe more even), the lemon+vodka smelled like sweet, sweet lemon drops after only 3 days.  Meanwhile, 8 weeks on, our latest cinnamon extract, anise extract, and (renewed attempt at) vanilla extract are deliciously fragrant & ready-to-go, I’d say.

Ratios have got to be playing a part here (I used smaller spice jars and enough peel/pod/spices to just about fill the jar) but I can’t argue with the fact that everything in vodka has really taken on flavor, while the brandy one hasn’t really done much.

Either way, lessons learned:

  • Use small spice jars.
  • Fill the jars near to the top with your spices. A rough guide to amounts I used:
    • For lemon or other citrus: 8-10 strips of peel, avoiding as much pith as you can.
    • For anise: Use star anise, not anise seeds: 5-7 pods.
    • For cinnamon: 3-4 two-inch cinnamon sticks.
    • For vanilla: Here, I seeded the pod for another recipe, bashed the pod a few times with the dull side of a chef’s knife and crammed it into a small spice jar.
  • Pour your booze-of-choice around the spices/peels/pods, till the booze covers the spices and the bottle is full-ish.

You’ll arrive at your extract at anywhere from 1 to 8 weeks depending on the ratio of stuff-to-booze. Lemon and other fresh herbs/spices will probably finish faster than dried spices. More oils, maybe?

I think that in the future, I’ll always keep the ratio high on spices and low on booze, since I’d rather have stronger flavoring.  It’s easier to tone the flavor down that not have anything to build on.

Also: there’s no missing the finish line:  You’ll know when it’s ready because you’ll be able to smell the lemon/anise/etc very clearly above the booze. And, if you’re using a clear liquor, you might also see the extract turn brown (i.e. for vanilla extract… that won’t happen with lemon).

Coming soon: Anise candies!

– Nancy

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Posted in: kitchen