How To: Infusing Tonka Beans in Oil

One might be tempted to think these were raisins or dates, but these are tonka beans (dipteryx odorata).

 I happened across some last year, ordered a sample sized portion, and made an infusion I meant to share with you, but time somehow got away from me.

A Bit About Tonka Beans

These aromatic beans are also called tonkin beans and tonquin beans. They have a high content of coumarin, which gives them a sweet odor but bitter taste. Many describe the scent as having notes of vanilla, almond, and cherry.

Even though these beans have many culinary uses, their content of coumarin is the reason they are technically banned in the USA. High doses of coumarin is said to cause liver problems. (ref)

The beans have traditionally been used as a vanilla substitute as well as in perfumes and even in some tobacco products (think of the rich, warm, scent of some pipe tobaccos and you’re on track).

I find the scent fits the description pretty well: vanilla, almond and cherry do play into to the overall fragrance, but if you asked me to describe it, I would say tonka bean smells like 'a masculine version of vanilla'. It's heftier, deeper and, well, more manly somehow.

Preparing to Infuse

As I had a very small amount of the beans (the entire order is pictured at the top), I decided to use the lot. To release as much of the fragrance as possible, I prepared to crush the beans. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge as these babies are hard as rocks. The beans were placed in a food safe bag and 'whacked' with a rolling pin.

This took more time and muscle than I expected, but it was worth the effort as the intoxicating fragrance was indeed released. Pictured is the result of the whacking.

All the bits were placed in a small jar and jojoba was poured in to cover.

I employed the sun infusion method for this batch and checked the scent periodically. As this is my first time working with tonka beans, I let my nose be the guide and didn't strain until it 'smelled like it was done' (very scientific method). As it turned out, this was after about 6 weeks.

The strained beans were promptly added to an ongoing batch of vanilla-infused oil to give it a little extra boost. (highly recommended!)

The final infused oil has made its way into a couple of balms, a face serum and even a foundation lotion base.

Even though this was a very small batch, I find a little goes quite a long way with the infused oil. It has a lovely fragrance and works well with other infused oils as well as essential oils.

I will most def be ordering more of these.

Do Tell

Have you ever worked with tonka beans? Please share in a comment below.

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More Info

Wikipedia on Tonka Beans
How to Cook with Tonka Beans (Great British Chefs)
Coumarin, the illegal chemical..., McGill, Office for Science and Society


maya said…
Hi Lise,
I use Tonka bean infusion in several of my formulations.
I, however, grind them into a powder and find I get more mileage that way.

I have also re-infused the powder 3 times and still have a beautiful scent.

Tonka beans are also super when making pudding. Plop one of those babies into the milk as its warming up and it lends a beautiful aroma. No vanilla needed. Take the bean out, rinse in water and allow to dry for the next use. They are a gift which keeps on giving!
Jade Forest Co. said…
Hi Lise! I love Tonka bean, great fixative. I use a cheese grater to grate them for use. The ones with the tiny holes made for parm cheese work great!
Anonymous said…
Hi Lise, thank you for great tip. I have them at home and used a couple of time for pancakes. I grind them with the cheese-grinder, they are hard as rock indeed. I will definitely try this infusion, though cold infusion. Thank you so much.
LisaLise said…
@Maya - you are an experienced tonic bean user! Thanks so much for sharing! :D

@Jade Forest - I didn't know it was a great fixative. It will now be finding its way into even more of my things. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise :D

@Anona - Oh my pancakes with tonic bean flavor sounds absolutely divine! :D
ksd said…
I have made an oil-tonka infusion and a tincture. both smell amazing and can easily overpower other scents in your formula!
For these I chopped up the beans - not easy, as they like to fly away when the knife hits them LOL
I also ground up one bean with a cheese grater and sometimes I just take a sniff of this powder... it's heavenly!
LisaLise said…
Hi ksd — I agree about the heavenly scent and the hardness of the beans! Thanks for sharing.
Chrys Rocha said…
I sell them and will send you a bunch for free since I am interested in sharing your experiments with my customers.
LisaLise said…
Hello Chrys and thank you for your comment. Feel free to contact me via the contact page on my website :)