female hands holding small brown paper wrapped gift with sprig of fresh greenery

How to Make Pure Vanilla Extract—a Most Perfect Homemade Holiday Gift!

To me, homemade Christmas gifts are the best gifts—both to give and receive. In the past, I’d begin to scramble about this time of year to come up new and unique ideas for my long list of friends, neighbors and colleagues.

The purpose of these gifts is to deliver my love and best wishes for the Holiday Season. And if I can weave into these messengers a small Wow! factor, well that’s a bonus.

Woman's hands hold christmas or new year decorated gift box. Toned picture

What always made this so challenging was my list of criteria. My homemade gifts need to be easily mass-produced. They must be consumable, attractive, and appeal to a wide range of tastes. And above all, homemade gifts must be affordable.

Years ago, I came up with a gift idea that just nailed it. That was the year I made homemade Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract. This was such a hit it has turned into an annual tradition. And I’ve expanded to include Pure Lemon Extract, Pure Chocolate Extract, Pure Coffee Extract, and Pure Almond Extract, too! No more scrambling for me.

 

A close up of a bottle of wine

Each year about this time you can be sure the top cabinets in my kitchen are filling up with glass jars that must be shaken every few days.

While in the past my extract-making has been limited to just one type (vanilla), this year I’m branching out to include lemon, almond, coffee, and chocolate extracts. I was surprised to discover that the basic instructions for making pure extracts are about the same, regardless the flavor.

Any pure extract is a “tincture” where alcohol meant for human consumption extracts the flavor from the beans, fruits or nuts. Whether making an extract for baking, health purposes or for flavoring a beverage, it’s simply a matter of combining the food item with alcohol then giving it time to “extract” in a dark environment.

What makes an extract pure is that it has nothing added but the food item to be extracted—no corn syrup, fillers, sodium benzoate, colorings or other mystery ingredients found in most commercial flavorings and extracts—even those labeled “pure.”

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General Instructions

You need a clean glass canning jar with a lid and ring. Add the prepared item to be extracted in the amounts specified (see below). Pour the amount of vodka specified to cover the food item. Apply lid tightly. Shake well. Store in a dark area, shaking again at least once every day for the first week or two.

Once the extract reaches the desired strength (3 months minimum, 6 is better), remove the food ingredients from the alcohol for future use and strain through a fine sieve or paper coffee filter. Finally, bottle and label the final product. (I’m using these very nice 4-oz amber glass bottles that come with black lids for my extracts this year)

Alcohol

A good quality, plain vodka that is at least 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) is recommended because it isn’t flavored or aged in wood like other spirits are and it is strong enough to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. We want our extracts to be very well-preserved! I prefer to use vodka bottled in glass rather than plastic, and I grab whatever’s on sale.

Alternatives

Alternatives to vodka include bourbon or even rum. A non-alcoholic option is pure vegetable glycerine.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To make the finest, pure vanilla extract, I recommend these Grade B Bourbon Vanilla Beans, which are the text for extraction.

You will want to use 3 to 5 beans for each cup of vodka. Split them down the side, using a very sharp knife and then cut into smaller pieces.

Combine the split vanilla beans and vodka in a canning jar—or divide between your individual small amber bottles. Cover and store in a dark place for 3 months to 6 months, shaking the jar every few days. How fun to watch it turn from pale amber (below) to a very deep, rich mahogany color over time.

 

homemade vanilla extract amber bottles

While 3 to 6 months is the general time frame to make a nice vanilla extract, that is an estimate. It depends a lot on your ratio of beans to alcohol, how small your cut the beans and how often you shake the bottle(s). There is no maximum amount of time. In fact, the longer the better the extract will be. Two years? Yes, and even longer.

My current big jar of vanilla extract is going on 8 years old. Every year just about this time, I pour out enough extract from holiday gifts including a few beans for each bottle, then replace with fresh vanilla beans and vodka.

Pure Lemon Extract

To make pure lemon extract, you need the zest of 5 to 6 lemons to 1 cup vodka. This is a bit trickier than vanilla because of the nature of lemons (limes and oranges, too). The rind or zest is the outside yellow part. Next to this is the white “pith” and then the fruit inside. You want ONLY the zest to make the extract.

It is very important that no pith is used in the extract or it will turn bitter. You can use a micro-plane or other type of “zester” tool, but it is labor-intensive. I prefer a soft-fruit peeler like my Zyliss Tomato and Fruit Peeler. It is precise and removes the zest in large pieces. Combine zest and vodka. Cover and store in a dark area for 1 to 2 months, shaking the jar frequently.

 

homemade lemon extract in jar on wood table with fresh lemons on the side

 

Pure Almond Extract

To make pure almond extract, combine 1/4 cup raw skinless almonds roughly chopped for each cup of vodka (the almond skin would make the extract bitter). Cover and store in a dark area for 2 to  3 months, shaking occasionally.

 

homemade almond extract

 

Pure Chocolate Extract

To make pure chocolate extract, combine 6 tablespoons raw cacao nibs, like Navitas Naturals Organic Raw Cacao Nibs to each cup of vodka. Cover and store in a dark area for 1 to 2 months, shaking occasionally.

 

 

homemade pure chocolate extract

Pure Coffee Extract

To make pure coffee extract, crush 4 tablespoons roasted coffee beans (don’t grind; crush them slightly in a food processor or using a mortar and pestle or similar) for each cup of vodka. Combine in a glass jar, apply lid tightly and shake well. Store in a dark area for 1 to 2 months, shaking the jar frequently.

 

glass jar of homemade chocolate extract

Time is one of the most important ingredients in homemade extracts. Fortunately, with Christmas nearly four months away, you’ve still got plenty of that!


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16 replies
  1. Rev. Cathey Williams says:

    Can the Power Cooker Express (electric pressure cooker) be used to make your Vanilla Extract? Thanks for ALL your great tips!

    Reply
  2. Mindy says:

    The skinless almond link appears to link to almonds with skins. Is there an easy way to remove skins or do you suggest using a different skinless almond?

    Reply
  3. Bonnie says:

    What is the shelf life of vanilla beans? I have some that have been in my freezer since the last time I made vanilla extract? are the still good to use?

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Hi Bonnie … Freezing vanilla beans is tricky. I will refer you to Foods Guy for details and instructions for both preparing them for freezing, and also how to thaw when you’re ready to use the beans.

      Reply
  4. Edith Pautz says:

    When making the vanilla extract, can I just split the vanilla beans and cut them into pieces and put them into the bottle of vodka? It looks to me like that would be easier than filling jars. You could still use a fine strainer when pouring out of the bottle to fill the gift bottles. Just didn’t know if there was a reason it had to be in quart jars. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Laureen Lowney says:

      Great minds think alike, hopefully! That’s what I’ve done, I got a glass bottle of vodka and added the beans. For me, the less pouring of things means less chance of a mess 😉
      I started it in May and it looks nice and brown, fingers crossed that it comes out alright!

      Reply
  5. Whizzy says:

    Hello northern neighbor from Lake George, CO. Thanks want to try this for Christmas 2021. I’m confused by the following though. Can you explain it a little more? “I pour out enough extract from holiday gifts including a few beans for each bottle, then replace with fresh vanilla beans and vodka.”

    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Debra Eshleman-Bitts says:

      Hi. I believe it means she uses some of last’s years vanilla extract for this years gifts. Then she adds more vodka and vanilla to replenish her stock. The longer it sits in a dark cabinets the better it gets. I do the same as her with my previous years vanilla.

      Reply
  6. Judy says:

    I made the instant pot vanilla extra last year. Since then, I read you should not use the instant pot with alcohol, as it is combustible. I’ll be making it the old-fashioned way from now on. Easy, cheap and good quality.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      If you have the time, the traditional way is optimal. As for doing this in an Instant Pot, I’m wary of those cautions. The blogger who discovered and created the Instant Pot method takes great issue with those who say this is dangerous. After all, isn’t oil combustible? Nearly every IP recipe out there contains oil—and some recipes a lot of it! That’s just my 2 cent worth. Please do your own independent research and then make your own decision.

      Reply

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