A Perfect Homemade Holiday Gift

Every year about this time I start scrambling for gift ideas for my long list of friends, neighbors and colleagues. I have criteria. The gift has to be homemade and easily mass produced. It needs to be consumable, attractive and appeal to a wide range of tastes. And above all, it needs to be affordable.


The purpose of these gifts is to deliver my love and best wishes for the Holiday Season (you know, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, Kwanzaa, Festivus). And if I can weave into these messengers a small Wow! factor, well that’s a bonus.

Cruising some of my favorite blogs recently sparked my memory and sent me scrambling for a book I wrote a long time ago, Cheapskate in the Kitchen. Sure enough, right there in the chapter “Cheapstitutes” is how to make homemade pure vanilla extract. Perfect!

Here’s the routine: Vodka + Vanilla Beans X 2 Months = Pure Vanilla Extract

Ingredients: Vodka and vanilla beans.

Yes, vodka …


… and vanilla beans.

vodka beans bottles

You can use any cheap vodka. It’s the quality of the vanilla beans that determines the quality of the extract. Vanilla Beans can be VERY pricey at the grocery store (however, when used in extract, you can keep using them almost indefinitely). If you plan to make more than one bottle of extract I suggest purchasing beans in bulk.

I’m using these Madagascar  vanilla beans …

beans label2

… and will bottle my homemade vanilla extract in these very nice 4-oz amber glass bottles that come with black lids.


Here’s the simple process to make a big batch of pure vanilla extract:

Get some canning jars (or other large glass vessels with lids) and wash them well.

Using a sharp knife, snip the ends off the beans, and slice each vanilla bean in half horizontally. Then starting about 1/4″ from one end, slice the vanilla bean lengthwise. The point here is to expose the millions of tiny vanilla bean seeds that are packed inside the beans. Don’t remove the seeds and try to not let them escape.

Cut beans2


Put the vanilla bean pieces (even the snipped ends) into canning jars. (I need a lot of vanilla extract, so I am using two 2-quart jars with about 30 beans in each jar.) Using a measuring cup or funnel, pour vodka into each bottle completely covering the  beans in the liquid. Place the lids on tightly and shake them very well. Store the jars in a cool, dark environment. Give them a good shake at least once a week.

The vanilla will be ready to use as soon as six weeks. However, the longer you allow it to age, the darker it will become and the more intense the vanilla flavor will be. After eight weeks the majority of the extraction process is complete and the vanilla is ready to use.

This is how it looks on Day One …

1 day

Day Three …

3 days

And Day Four …

4 days


In about six weeks, using a small funnel, I will fill the gift bottles with extract. I plan to add one or two pieces of vanilla bean to each gift bottle so it will continue to intensify. The vanilla beans will remain amazingly potent. I could simply refill my big jars with vodka so the beans are always submerged in alcohol and I will have a never-ending supply of vanilla extract for baking, flavoring coffee and gifts throughout the year.

To finish off my gifts, I’m using these very cool customizable labels from Avery. It was so easy to go online and use the companion templates and designs that come with the label instructions.


The results are quite amazing if I do say so myself. Another idea is to get kraft or manilla shipping labels and handwrite them. There are so many options for labeling.

Before you ask, I’ll tell you that the small bottle of extract  is a stand-in demo and yes it is bit larger than the 4-oz amber gift bottles. I made this single bottle of extract last Christmas and I’ve been using it (and refilling) throughout the year. It is just an amazing thing.

The embellishment I’m using is this olive green raffia ribbon which I love.


I am relieved now that I’ve figured out my homemade Holiday Gift for 2013. These sweet bottles of awesomeness will be easy to ship. And I have no doubt that my friends, neighbors and colleagues will be happy because who doesn’t love high-quality, really good, pure vanilla?

My best estimate is that these 24 bottles of Pure Madagascar Vanilla will cost about $4.50 per gift, complete. And I believe I will enclose a fabulous cookie recipe with each of my gifts—one that calls for lots of really good pure vanilla extract. I’ll keep you posted.

Let the Season begin!


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25 replies
  1. barbara baird
    barbara baird says:

    I made both vanilla & almond extract & they both just smell like the vodka after 9 weeks of steeping & shaking. When I add the vanilla to some milk to test it, it tests very mildly like vanilla but the almond has no flavor at all. I returned what I hadn’t gifted to the canning jars to steep longer & will see how that goes, Any idea what could have gone wrong?

  2. meli_beach
    meli_beach says:

    Hi Mary, I have a friend who loves to bake so this is perfect for her. Quick question though, you said you used 30 beans per jar is that 30 whole beans or 30 halves (15 whole beans) since you cut them in half to begin with. Thanks so much, love your column.

  3. TAMMY
    TAMMY says:


  4. debi sue
    debi sue says:

    Hi Mary, I can’t find 2 quart jars but did find some 1 quart ones. Would I cut down the beans to 15 per jar or does it still need the 30? Thanks, Deb

  5. Janet
    Janet says:

    Thanks Mary, this looks wonderful! I was wondering, will clear glass bottles look attractive too? Or will the brownish vanilla not look too beautiful?

  6. DianaB
    DianaB says:

    Considering how expensive vanilla beans are (like $4-5 each) , I can hardly wait to buy them by the 10s or 20s and try to justify that expense unless someone out there has an idea of where to buy them in bulk for very cheap which would probably mean they are not exactly top of the line vanilla beans, something like having saffron on my pantry, which I do not. I won’t even buy one of them for my own use, let alone large quantities and gift them to someone who may or may not appreciate the expense involved. Just because it is “homemade” does not make it practical.

  7. Guest
    Guest says:

    McCormick Pure Vanilla extract is currently $4.05 per ounce at my supermarket. It comes in a 2-oz bottle for $9.09. My math says that using that per ounce price, a 4-oz bottle like my gifts, would retail for just shy of $20. I’m sure Pure Madagascar Vanilla is worth at least twice as much as whatever generic beans the McCormick company uese. So I’m thinking that I’m giving what? … $40 gifts? (Yes I do.)

  8. Jana
    Jana says:

    Mary, I love this column, I’ve been making my own vanilla for years and love it. Thank you for the beautiful gift idea, Something I do when I’m ready to start a new batch is let the vanilla beans dry and add them to a mason jar of sugar and shake it all up and after a short time have beautiful vanilla sugar that is great in drinks or with fruit or other desserts! Thanks again for all the fabulous ideas!

  9. Kim
    Kim says:

    I love making this! We keep it around for our own use, too. When you compare the ingredient cost to the price of vanilla extract, the mark-up is outrageous! I did want to let you know that the beans will eventually lose their potency and you’ll have to buy new beans. For us, it took about a year and a half of refills before there was no vanilla flavor left. Our Christmas batch is brewing right now and makes our basement smell divine!

  10. quilts4me
    quilts4me says:

    Will try making my own vanilla, this looks wonderful!I
    tried using these labels for a large batch of grape jelly we made this summer. Towards the end of the page the printing did not line up and about 3 rows of labels had white space on the top and the “grape jelly” was near the bottom. Even after making some test sheets first, the actual label paper did not go through the printer correctly. Just wanted to share before someone else gets frustrated.

  11. Krskst
    Krskst says:

    Today is October 22. I can hustle and hopefully find vanilla beAns locally and get the process started. While it is aging i can gather the bottles and labels. It sounds so easy and I love the “home made” idea. Thank you for sharing.

    • Guest
      Guest says:

      I put links in the text of the post … can you see that? There are links for the beans, bottles, labels and ribbon. The links should appear as blue text. Take a look.

      • Andrea W.
        Andrea W. says:

        I would looovvee to be on the receiving end of this wonderful homemade vanilla!!!! LOL!!! [not teasing though!]
        Andrea– Los Angeles

      • Paige
        Paige says:

        The link for the bottles (brown, shorter) does not look like the longer necked bottle in the final photo. I like the longer necked bottle better. Do you have a source for those? Thanks!

  12. Dug
    Dug says:

    What an interesting idea. Does the vodka maintain its potency? Would we actually be making flavored liquor? I am inteigued and curious about this recipe. May I be added to your Christmas list? Hehe.

    • Guest
      Guest says:

      Well I guess that’s exactly what “extracts” are … flavored liquor. Seriously, all extracts are made with alcohol, not water 🙂 Open any bottle of vanilla or other extract. It’s very strong! However one uses such a small amount in baking, etc., and I suppose the heat of baking evaporates the alcohol. And I don’t know of anyone who drinks extracts, or even worries about the ingredients.


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