I wrote this post for a blog swap with the lovely Autumn Giles of Autumn Makes and Does. Her blog is really wonderful--clean, unpretentious, and loaded with simple recipes. You can also visit her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
I've been making homemade vanilla extract for a few years now. I started making it because it was easy, and because I go through a lot of vanilla. Being able to make a quart or more of vanilla extract at a time seemed like a great idea. After all, it doesn't go bad, and if you're savvy about sourcing your vanilla beans, you come out ahead cost-wise.
I liked my homemade extract so much that I started making it to give as gifts during the holidays and to have on hand for those "oops, I forgot that your birthday was today" moments. In my experience, most people are completely blown away that you made vanilla extract. I often have friends gushing about their latest baking project to me and how they used my vanilla in it. It's also gratifying to hear about more inventive uses for vanilla. My non-baking friends use it in their coffee or oatmeal.
To say that making vanilla extract is easy is an understatement. The only part of the process that requires any presence of mind at all is buying the vanilla beans. As the holidays get closer, you'll be glad for a project that doesn't come from a Pinterest board or require a trip to the mall. Quite the opposite. All you need to do is go to a liquor store for high proof alcohol, where they also have fine things like bourbon and gin and...bourbon. Sometimes a bottle of bourbon just jumps in your basket without you noticing, and isn't that nice?
In all seriousness, source your vanilla beans now, grab a bottle of something high proof, and you're most of the way there. Vanilla extract does require time to make, but it's hands-off. Once the beans are in a jar with the alcohol, all you have to do is shake it occasionally until December, when it's ready to go into bottles for gifting. Making cute little labels is optional, but I think presentation is always important.
Cut in half lengthwise:
25 vanilla beans*
Using the tip of a spoon, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pods. Place the pods and seeds in a quart jar. Cover with:
4 cups high-proof alcohol such as Everclear, vodka, or high-proof rum
Close the jar tightly and shake once a day or so (this isn't scientific, so no need to set an alert on your phone for this). When the alcohol is deep brown, about 1 month to 1 1/2 months later, the vanilla is ready for bottling.
To bottle, strain the vanilla bean pods out of the extract. If desired, you can strain the extract through a jelly bag to remove all the little black seeds, but I like to leave them in. Transfer the extract to a measuring cup with a spout. Pour the extract into tiny bottles (I order 2oz and 4oz bottles for this), and place one of the vanilla bean pods that you strained out of the extract in each bottle (the bottles are short, so you'll have to cut the pod in half).
*I buy my vanilla beans in bulk from an online retailer that I've had good luck with. However, there are lots of places you can buy bulk vanilla beans. Simply Google "bulk vanilla beans" and you'll come up with a lot of sources. They're still not cheap, but they're vastly cheaper this way than buying them two at a time. For this project, 1/4 pound vanilla beans is plenty. I usually buy 1/2 pound because I use vanilla beans frequently and like having extra on hand.