Looking for a pretty, thoughtful DIY gift idea for the holidays? If you really want to treat the foodie or baker in your life, a homemade bottle of excellent vanilla extract is a lovely and practical gift. It won't add to the pile of sugary treats--at least not right away--but it offers homemade comfort to both the giver and the recipient.
If you've even dabbled in baking, you've most likely used vanilla extract. It's found in most dessert recipes because it lends a complex, fragrant sweetness that doesn't overpower other ingredients. You probably know that good, authentic vanilla extract can be expensive. You also probably know that imitation vanilla is the devil. It's straight from the lab--in short, it's chemicals engineered to resemble the smell and taste of vanilla. You really can tell the difference, and it ain't pretty.
Enter the vanilla bean.
Vanilla beans are the seed pod of the Vanilla orchid. They're prized for their heady scent and versatility, and while they can be quite expensive when purchased singly, they're easy to find in bulk online for huge discounts. I buy mine from Beanilla because they have lots of great varieties with good prices and a quick turnaround. You can get ten beans for the cost of two or three at the store! Bourbon or Madagascar are a good all-purpose variety, but Mexican beans are lovely in desserts, and Tahitian vanilla has a wholly different fragrance for the adventurous cook.
To make extract, all you need is some beans, some small glass bottles (these are 4 oz amber bottles), and some cheap vodka. Yes, cheaper is better because it doesn't have added flavors and essences. We always keep a massive jug of cheap vodka under the sink for household applications anyway (it's a great glass cleaner!).
You will use 4 beans per 8 oz of extract. Since my bottles are 4 oz, I'm using two in each. Cut them to a length that will fit inside your bottle (I split these in half), then draw the tip of a sharp knife down the length of the bean to expose the seeds.
Those little black bits are the magic. Of course, if you were going to use these in a recipe, you'd simply scrape out all that dark goodness and add it to your mixture (sometimes even throwing the pod in for extra flavor, depending on the application). But here we want to make sure every bit of that ends up in the bottle.
You or a very helpful two-year-old will drop them into the bottle, along with any seed paste that may have seeped out while cutting. Then simply use a funnel to top off with vodka, cap tightly, and shake gently.
Most of the work is waiting. It takes about eight weeks for this mixture to mature into a usable vanilla extract. If you think of it, invert the bottle every week or so to help it mix. If you don't, no matter. This bottle has been sitting in our cabinet for a few months now, and it's ready to go!
Just wrap a little handmade tag and ribbon around the bottle and it's ready for gifting! We'll be giving our holiday gifts early this year because of the baby, so I'll be sure to make a note on mine saying "I'm ready to use in January" (if you plan far enough in advance, you won't need to do that). I'll also note that the beans will keep giving if you just top it off with a little more vodka as it gets low. You'll be amazed how easy and rewarding it is to make something as expensive and gourmet as fancy vanilla extract right in your own kitchen!