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Nearly every recipe for making vanilla extract suggests the use of Vodka, or an alternative alcoholic beverage with a high alcohol content (typically 35%+), such as Rum or Bourbon. However, the various recipes typically default to Vodka for its more neutral taste. Essentially, the recipes simply instruct to leave opened vanilla pods in the alcoholic beverage for at least several months. The high alcohol percentage is required for the vanilla flavour to diffuse over time.

This made me wonder why I cannot find a single recipe that simply recommends the use of pure food grade ethanol, like that used to make Limoncello or other fruit- or herb-based liquors. It is typically cheaper, does not add additional flavour, and its high alcohol percentage (typically 95%+) (Rectified spirit) should suggest a better diffusion of flavours, or not? What am I missing?

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    Do note that commercial vanilla extract is extracted under pressure, so the homemade version can never be more than around 1/3 as potent.
    – FuzzyChef
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 19:06
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    It's worth noting that you are very unlikely to find pure alcohol. Alcohol/water mixtures form an Azeotrope. Getting past about 95 or 96% alcohol (by weight) is very difficult (and often involves using other compounds)
    – Flydog57
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 17:26
  • @Flydog57 and if you do manage to get anhydrous alcohol and leave the container open you'll be back to 95% in no time.
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 14:27

1 Answer 1

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I can see two possibilities.

One is that vodka and the like are highly available. You can buy them in almost any country, and in most places just in a supermarket. They're even fairly likely to be on the shelf at home - I made vanilla extract using rum that I'd had for ages, when the covid home-baking boom meant vanilla extract sold out in my local supermarkets.

Pure high-proof alcohol is only cheaper if you're going to use it all in flambéeing, making extracts, etc. - you're not going to drink up the leftovers. At least here in the UK, spirits are taxed by the amount of ethanol you're buying. So a bottle of 80% ABV would attract twice as much tax as a the same size bottle of 40%. That means the pure stuff is going to look very expensive, which will go some way towards explaining its limited availability - and specialist retailers aren't cheap.

But there's reason another too. We use true vanilla extract because it's a more complex flavour than its main component vanillin. Vanillin is far more soluble in alcohol than in water, but the other compounds that contribute to a natural vanilla flavour may not all be. In that case you'd actually want a decent amount of water to extract these other compounds.

After all, even industrially, when pure ethanol is a readily-available ingredient, a water-ethanol mix is used for the extraction (see, for example, this patent), rather than extracting into ethanol and then diluting for sale.

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    The first argument might be a territorial issue. For me personally, I can buy 96% alcohol from the supermarket across the street @ €20/1L (e.g. see carrefour.it/s/carrefour-IT/p/…). It is approximately double the price of the cheapest Vodka per liter, but per liter of alcohol it is actually still cheaper. As such, if you would dilute with water to get <50%, the pure alcohol is cheaper. The second argument is interesting, I will look further into it in the hope to find a desired (range of) alcohol percentage. Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 12:20
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    @JJMDriessen Yes, in many places, 190+-proof alcohol is either difficult and expensive to procure, or outright illegal.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 13:12
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    From my understanding of chemistry it would seem very odd if some substance is soluble well in water but not in alcohol. Chemically alcohol is a universal solvant where both water soluble and fat soluble substances can disolve.
    – quarague
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 14:16
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    @quarague The solubility of most things is dependent on the degree of polarity of the solvent. Water is strongly polar compared to most alcohols, so things that are hydrophilic (such as most metal halides) tend to dissolve better in water than alcohols, and this effect can be strong enough to make things functionally insoluble in alcohols. Ethanol is considered a universal solvent because it can dissolve most things, not because it’s particularly good at dissolving most things. Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 22:31
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    In summary, it seems that the sole reason for not finding quasi-pure (95%+) food grade alcohol in recipes is really just related to expense or lack of availability in most places, but that its use is fine if not better than vodka, albeit diluted. After all, it is meant exactly for making homemade spirits and liquors. Following the discussion, I found indeed that for fruity/herbal liquors a dilution with water to achieve 40-60% alcohol content is recommended to capture the widest range of both water soluble and alcohol soluble constituents. Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 11:34

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