One of my goals for this year is to begin making holiday gifts in November, so I’m not stressing and rushing to finish up gifts mid-December. One of my favorite homemade gifts to give (and keep for myself) is homemade vanilla extract, but it takes time to develop so you need to start it now.
Although vanilla has the meaning of something that is plain or basic, vanilla is really not dull at all. It is a member of the orchid family, and a native of Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The people of Mexico may have traded it with the Aztecs in the 15th century. Today, vanilla has been eclipsed by imitations. Pure vanilla extract can be expensive to buy. But if you take the time to make your own, you will never be satisfied with the imposters.
I started out making vanilla extract for myself and I promise I will never go back to store bought — the flavor really stands out in baked goods. Once I started making it for friends and family, they either keep asking me to give them more, or they start making it themselves.
It’s incredibly simple to make homemade vanilla extract, even if you lack kitchen skills. It requires only two ingredients and about two months of waiting. I order my vanilla beans via Amazon because they offer free shipping, fair prices, and I’ve always received plump, moist beans. Many other companies sell vanilla beans in bulk, so feel free to search for the best deal for you. I prefer Madagascar vanilla beans (rich and creamy flavor), but you can also use Mexican vanilla beans (bold and smoky), or Tahitian vanilla beans (floral aroma and unique cherry-chocolate taste) – Amazon offers all varieties.
You will also want to collect or buy bottles if you’re going to give the vanilla extract as gifts, though you can develop the extract in a large mason jar or the original vodka bottle. For gifting, I’ve always either used bottles that I’ve saved and washed from other products, or the airline-size Absolute vodka bottles (the labels peel off). Amazon sells 4-ounce amber glass bottles (less than $10 for 12 bottles) that would be perfect for gifting, and the darker colored bottle protects the flavor from light.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
- 750 ml. vodka (standard size bottle)
- 12 whole vanilla beans
Pour about a 1/2 cup of vodka out of the bottle (do with it what you will, but I have a few ideas if you are at a loss). Slice or cut each bean down the middle, leaving it connected at the top, and exposing the tiny seeds inside. Drop the beans into the vodka, screw the lid on, and shake. Store in a cool, dark place, shaking every week or so.
Shaking the bottle helps it develop faster, but it will still work if you frequently forget, like I do. After 8 to 10 weeks, open the bottle and check the aroma. It should smell like pure vanilla extract. If you detect an alcohol scent still, it needs another couple of weeks. Once it smells amazing, it’s ready! Don’t strain out the little brown specks floating around – those are the seeds and will add extra flavor to your recipes. If you leave the beans in the bottle indefinitely, it will keep developing a stronger flavor. Transfer vanilla to smaller bottles for giving or for your own use. When I’m giving the extract in a small bottle, I usually cut a small piece of pod to put in the bottle for extra infusion and to make it look cute.
The beans can be reused by adding more vodka to the same bottle and a couple of new vanilla beans, just try to keep the beans submerged so they don’t dry out. It will take a little longer for the second batch to develop, but it will get there eventually. If you want to make a different amount of extract, a good rule of thumb is four beans per cup of vodka. Three beans per cup will probably also work, but it will take longer. If you have extra beans, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or a bag, and store in a airtight container. This will help prevent the beans from drying out until you’re ready to use them.
Use the homemade vanilla extract as you would store-bought extract, but expect a better flavor!