Make your own: vanilla extract
Vanilla extract is one thing that I keep running across in ‘things you shouldn’t buy’ lists. Reason number 1: it’s super easy to make at home. Reason number 2: It’s SO EXPENSIVE. It may not seem like much, but if you look at how tiny that bottle actually is, you’re paying quite a bit per fluid ounce. Even though I paid through the nose for an expensive bottle of single-barrel bourbon, the extract I’m making at home is running me about $2.00 per ounce, compared to over $3.00 per ounce at my Wal-Mart SuperCenter. And imagine if you bought the good stuff! This stuff is supposed to be good, but good grief!
What you need:
whole vanilla beans (This is the cheapest place to find good-quality beans.)
alcohol (Preferably good quality. Vodka is recommended because it has a neutral taste, but I used bourbon for its caramel and vanilla notes.)
bottles or jars, cleaned or sterilized (Half-pint canning jars are pretty cheap, although the large mouth is a little weird. You could always steep them in these, then transfer the extract to a prettier jar, especially if it’s a gift.)
time (I’ve read anywhere from 1 week to 6 months. I’m letting mine go long; figure it can’t hurt.)
What you do:
1. With a sharp knife, carefully slit each vanilla bean lengthwise, being careful not to cut the beans in half. Inside, you will find a paste of plant ooze and tiny black seeds; these are the ‘vanilla bean’ specks that you see in vanilla bean ice cream and things like that. If necessary, chop the beans into pieces so that it will fit into your jar.
2. Place the beans (or bean pieces) into the jar. You will need between three and four beans per 4-ounce jar.
3. Pour alcohol over the beans to cover. My 4-ounce jars took closer to 5-ounces of liquid to cover the beans. This is important because the alcohol preserves the beans; if they are exposed to air they can mold.
4. Cover each jar tightly and give it a good shake. You want the interior seeds to get washed out and float around in the liquid.
5. Store the jars in a cool, dark place. For the first week, shake each jar once a day; from then on, shake once a week.
I found that four half-pint canning jars fit perfectly into a large oatmeal container, so I just stacked them in there and put them in a (relatively) cool spot in my kitchen. That way they’re convenient when I need to shake them. I still have lots of beans left over, and a little bit of bourbon, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to use all of this up! That’s why they’d be great gifts…
I cobbled this together from recipes I found here and here. The second link also has directions for making vanilla paste, vanilla sugar, vanilla powder, vanilla salt… Fortunately, the package comes with a lot of extra beans.