Monday, November 28, 2011

GF Alcohol and GF Vanilla Extract

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Since we are now officially in the thick of the holiday season, if you’re anything like me, you are baking quite a bit. When I’m baking, vanilla is a very important ingredient. This time of year I use a lot of it, and boy is it expensive! Have you ever thought about whether or not your vanilla extract is gluten-free? Frankly that question wasn’t even on my radar until a couple of years ago.

One of my friends is an allergen-free baker who operates in a dedicated allergen-free commercial kitchen. At a bare minimum her products do not contain gluten, dairy, soy or nuts, but are also often free of other ingredients like eggs. I’ve had her come speak to my support group, I’ve attended one of her cooking classes, and I’ve also had the opportunity to work with her inside her kitchen. She is a wealth of information!
Regular vs. Gluten-Free Vanilla Extract
One of the things she taught me is that typical vanilla extract has gluten in it. She told me that alcohol in the extract usually comes from grains containing gluten, such as wheat. If it says alcohol (with no other explanation) on the bottle, then it probably has gluten in it. I hadn’t really thought about it before then. Most varieties available in your local grocery store contain grain alcohol, even if it doesn’t say “grain.” And, lots of the less expensive extracts don’t even contain real vanilla, but rather vanillin, an artificial flavor made from wood alcohol – a byproduct of the pulp industry. Yes…wood. Gross!
GF Alcohol Options
My friend explained how she sources her gluten-free vanilla extract from the Caribbean and has actually visited the factory where it is made using local rum. Did you know that rum is made from sugar cane? Almost all regular rum on the market is gluten-free, unless it is flavored or colored. Gluten can be a hidden ingredient in flavors and colors (like caramel color).   
Vodka and Tequila
I was already aware that vodka is made from potatoes, which makes it a grain-free alcohol alternative. However, what I didn’t know is that many vodka brands now use corn or grain alcohol in their recipe.
Another traditionally gluten-free alcohol is tequila, which is made from agave. Unfortunately, some of the cheaper tequila brands will add additional sugar or grain to their recipe.  
I found a list of gluten-free alcohols that you can reference here and here, although I have no idea how current or correct the information is. It never hurts to give the manufacturer a call to double-check if you are unsure.         
GF Vanilla Extract
Since my friend shared with me all about gluten-free alcohols, I thought that perhaps I should consider making my own vanilla extract. I didn’t think it would be very difficult and perhaps it would be less expensive!
And, now that we know about gluten-free alcohol options, we can make our GF vanilla extract! Want to know how easy it is?
Gather the following things:
1 cup of gluten-free alcohol of your choosing (i.e. rum, vodka, tequila, etc.)
3 vanilla beans
sealed container, like a glass mason jar
Here’s what to do:
1.     Split your vanilla beans with a knife, leaving them attached at one end.

2.     If you like, scrape the seeds out with the back of your knife and add them to the alcohol.

3.     Place the vanilla beans in the container, making sure they are covered with alcohol.

4.     Shake the container vigorously once a week.

5.     Store for at least 60 days in a dark place for best results.

6.     If you prefer, strain the seeds out of the extract using cheesecloth or a fine sieve before using.

7.     As you use the extract, top it off with additional gluten-free alcohol to replenish your supply. The vanilla beans will continue to flavor the alcohol for several years.
One of my 2 large bottles of rum.
I added the vanilla beans back in
September. Looking good!
It makes a perfect gift!
*Warning! If you are reading this and celebrate Christmas with my family, avert your eyes! The following information is top secret!*
This year I am making homemade gluten-free vanilla extract for our family and close friends. (I doubt any of those people actually read my blog, so I’m probably safe!)
I purchased 2 large bottles of rum. Based upon the recipe above, I then calculated the number of vanilla beans I would need based upon the combined volume of the bottles of rum I planned to use. I bought vanilla beans at Costco because it was the cheapest place I could find them. The vanilla beans they carry are larger than most vanilla beans I had found previously, which made them an ever better deal. My experience with my local Costco store is that vanilla beans are only available during the holiday season. Then I found some pretty bottles at Cost Plus World Market with cork stoppers that will accommodate the vanilla beans standing upright.
Costco vanilla beans!
I will pour out the newly prepared vanilla extract into each bottle (which holds approximately 1 cup) and then place some vanilla beans inside. Since my vanilla beans are large, I plan to only include 2 per bottle rather than the 3 indicated in the recipe. I found some Avery labels that are intended for wine bottles and are moisture-resistant (to help protect against drips). I will design a custom label and then apply it to each bottle. Viola! Christmas gifts are done!
I’m sorry I didn’t think far enough ahead to share this with you at least 60 days prior to Christmas! If you choose to make your own gluten-free vanilla extract as gifts this year, just add a note to the recipient indicating that they will get the best results if they wait to use it until the date you specify (at least 60 days after you added the vanilla beans to the alcohol). Don’t forget to remind them that they can top it off and keep making their own as they use it up.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving!    
P.S. If you would like more information on making your own GF vanilla extract, I found 2 articles online that are really good - here and here.

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