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