Extracting the Essence

by mutteringhousewife

“I need some cheap vodka”, I told my husband. “Is it the Horror?” he asked. “Because I can take him to a movie if that would help. After I get home from soccer.”

No, not to put inside me, to make vanilla essence. Although the Horror’s piano teacher is threatening to bring a hip flask to his next lesson, tea just isn’t strong enough for him at the moment. I digress. I don’t know about you, but I get through a metric buttload of vanilla essence and that stuff isn’t cheap. It goes into most of my baking. I think it works as a flavour enhancer, you can’t really taste half a teaspoon in a batch of biscuits, but they’re just tastier for it. Make your own vanilla essence? How hard could it be?

Well, it isn’t hard, but it does take a little forethought because it takes a year. Most methods suggest six months, but I think a year is better. It’s very simple. Buy six vanilla pods, the best you can find. Stick them in a bottle of cheap vodka. I like the vodka because its cheap, tasteless and colourless, so I can see how strong the stuff is. Periodically shake the bottle. I’m sure you can finesse this and maybe shorten the process by heating it, processing the beans in some way, but you can’t beat it for simplicity. You just have to wait.

The one on the right I’m using now. It’s maybe two thirds the strength of bought vanilla essence. I could strengthen it simply by leaving the lid off for a bit and letting some of the alcohol evaporate. Or I could just add a bit more to my baking. It’s still strengthening and I give it a shake every time I use it. The one on the left is one that’s only been going for a month. See, I am capable of planning ahead.

Emboldened by this success, I’ve recently turned my attention to lavender. Over the holidays I suggested the Horror clean out his school bag. It turned out to be a little sticky at the bottom. He handed it to me. “I’d like you to wash this and when you give it back I’d like it to smell like lavender” he said. There’s something compelling about that boy. I found a lavender sachet at the bottom of my sportswear drawer, still a bit scented, and stuck it in the bag as it dried in the sun, giving the desired effect. But it made me think that here’s something that looks very easy to do, given enough lavender plants.

We gave the Horror some lavender plants of his own for his birthday, but I was resigned to waiting until they’d got big enough to harvest some time in the far future. Imagine my delight when, walking home from the Grasshopper with my takeaway coffee, I noticed that my neighbours had evidently spent the weekend trimming their lavender bushes and there were all the trimmings in their green bin, sitting publicly out on the public footpath. Honestly, the things people throw out.

It’s a green bin, there’s nothing wrong at all with scooping out an armful of lavender clippings. It’s the kind of lavender where the scent is in the leaves as well as the flowers. I’m a bit of an expert now, having chatted to the man at the garden centre for a full five minutes.

I have a litre jar that’s been recently emptied of pickled beetroot, so I start packing the leaves and flowers in. I’ve done a bit of googling on extracting, and you can either extract with a solvent, as it may be ethanol, found in large quantities in cheap vodka. Or you can steam distil the stuff, which gives me flashbacks to third year organic chemistry. Off to the bottle shop for cheap vodka then, and it’s worse than buying condoms. Middle aged housewife buys litre bottle of cheap vodka, appears to be wearing homemade fur vest, doesn’t seem to have brushed hair. Aha. “Don’t judge me!” I want to shout. “It’s for the lavender!” As if that would help.

I’ve packed the jar as tightly as I can, and it packs down even further with vodka in it.

It’s a litre jar, and a litre bottle of vodka. Can you see how much vodka is left? Familiar as you are with Archimedes principle, this will tell you that that level is exactly the volume that the lavender is taking up in the jar. So even though it looks like it’s packed very tightly, there’s more vodka in that jar than lavender.

I’m going to leave that on the windowsill for a while. Maybe some months. What’s extracting into the alcohol is scented oils from the plants, and the longer I leave it the more will come out. The theory is that when I filter the bits of plant out, I can leave the jar with the lid off until the alcohol evaporates, I’ll get a concentrated lavender oil. Which I can add to the Horror’s bath to leave him smelling delicious, which will hopefully distract people from noticing that he once again hasn’t washed his knees.