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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