To me, homemade Christmas gifts are the best gifts—both to give and receive. In the past, I’d begin to scramble every summer to come up with 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 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, and 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 July, you can be sure the top cabinets in my kitchen are filling up with glass jars of all kinds of extracts that must be shaken every few days.
While in the past my extract-making has been limited to just one type (vanilla), I was surprised to discover that the basic instructions for making a number of pure extracts are about the same, regardless of 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.”
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 rum, both of which work well in vanilla extract. I have never attempted to use any alcohol other than vodka for other types of extracts, i.e., lemon, almond, chocolate, or coffee, so you’re on your own there1
A non-alcoholic option for all is pure food-grade vegetable glycerine.
To make the finest, pure vanilla extract, I recommend these Grade B Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans, which are the best for flavor and extraction. Grade B vanilla beans have a much lower moisture content than Grade A, meaning the vanilla flavor is highly concentrated—perfect for the very best pure vanilla extract.
Although Madagascar is the home to the best vanilla beans for extraction, there are plenty of other places that grow some excellent vanilla—the Caribbean, Comoro Islands, Hawaii, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Mexico. As for the name, Madagascar refers to the group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Bourbon is the name of the island that gives Bourbon vanilla its name.
You will want to use 3 to 5 vanilla beans for each cup of vodka, depending on the time you have before the extract is ready to use. With a very sharp knife, cut off the tips of the beans, but do not discard them. Slit in half lengthwise. (Scraping out the contents of the beans with the blunt side of the knife is optional because the flavors will distill into the vodka regardless, however, I like how the vanilla bean flecks settle at the bottom of the bottles).
Combine the vanilla beans, the cut-off tips, and vodka in a canning jar—or divide the bean pieces between your individual small amber bottles. Cover and store in a dark place for 3 to 6 months, shaking the jar(s) 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 you 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. It just gets better and better.
My current big jar of vanilla extract is going on 9 years old. Every December, I pour out enough extract for holiday gifts, including a few beans for each bottle, leave the balance of beans in the jar, add fresh vanilla beans and vodka to keep the extraction process going.
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 only the zest in large pieces. Adding one or two pieces of zest to the final gifting bottle of extract is, to me, more artful than a bunch of shavings that sink to the bottom, but that’s a personal preference.
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 of 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 five months away, you’ve plenty of that!
Frequently asked questions
Where to buy vanilla beans?
You can find them in some supermarkets, warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s, or online. Prices have come down considerably ones (don’t skimp here), so shop around. Just recently I scouted like a cheapskate and found the best online price for Madagascar Grade B beans at Amazon.
What is the best type of vanilla bean?
Vanilla grown in Madagascar is known for its high quality and the best flavor, although beans grown in Tahiti and Mexico make a fine extract, too. Grade B beans, surprisingly, are better than Grade A for extracting. They’re cheaper too.
Why were vanilla beans so expensive?
If you follow international weather, wars, and politics, you may recall that in the 1980s, cheaper artificial vanilla with “natural flavoring” overtook the market (read what that natural thing is if you dare—Yikes!).
As a result and as reported in Business Insider, vanilla farmers cut back production because they weren’t making enough money. They switched crops from vanilla to coffee and cocoa. But around 2011, demand for real vanilla rose again as big companies were pledging to eliminate artificial flavorings from their products (thank you!).
Add to that, vanilla thieves, severe cyclones that wiped out delicate crops—plus the many years needed to produce mature trees—it’s taken a while for the vanilla farmers to get back in the game. Some say they don’t want to.
UPDATE: As of summer 2021, unlike everything else in the world it seems, vanilla beans have dropped in price. Good news, amirite?
Do I have to use vodka?
No. An alternative food-grade glycerin version of vanilla extract will make a fine substitute. Just don’t expect anything close to high-quality, excellent vanilla extract. Personally, I’d look for another type of homemade gift altogether than compromise with glycerin which does change the flavor.
What kind of vodka?
You want a mid-range, unflavored vodka that is 40% alc/vol and 80 proof. Look for that on the label. And look for one that’s on sale. I recently purchased a 2-quart bottle of Fleischmann’s Royal Vodka locally for $6.99 on sale. Perfect.
What is the shelf-life of vanilla extract?
Because of the alcohol content, pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf life. Bonus: If you leave pieces of a vanilla bean in the extract, the flavor will continue to intensify over time.
Gift bottles as seen in the last photo above are sold as “hot sauce bottles,” and just perfect for gifting gourmet extracts. They come in 12- or 24-packs including screw-on lids, dripper inserts, and black shrink bands.
To fill the bottles with vanilla extract, use a small funnel and pour it in—completely unfiltered. To add a touch of class, I drop in 2 or 3 of the vanilla bean fragments from the brew. Then screw the lid on very tightly, slip a black shrink band over the bottle’s neck, and hit it with a hot hairdryer. That shrinks it to fit and creates a lovely note of security.
You can use the same vanilla beans over and again to make extract in the future. Just replace the liquid you poured off for your own baking or for gifts with new vodka. Either process again in an Instant Pot or tuck away in a dark cupboard for a nice long soak over the coming year. The beans do lose their intensity over time, so dropping a few new beans into each new batch works fabulously. Shhhh! I’m still using beans I bought in 2013 in batch after batch … after batch!
Madagascar Grade B vanilla beans
Instant Pot electric pressure cooker
Gift bottles that work well, called “hot sauce bottles,” come in 12- or 24-packs including screw-on lids, dripper inserts, and black shrink bands.
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