At my annual Christmas cookie exchange, I always like to send everyone home with a little treat, in addition to the copious amounts of cookies. In years past, I made jams, apple butters, and homemade bread. Last year, I opted for something a bit less labor intensive: homemade vanilla extract. Besides the ease factor, I liked doing the vanilla extract because it was my hope that each use would remind everyone of the fun, happy times from the cookie party. Additionally, it is a favor that encourages everyone to continue spreading sweetness by baking!
It's simple to make. All you need are vanilla beans, vodka, and some containers. If you start a batch now, it will be ready in time for Christmas.
You can find vanilla beans in bulk on Amazon. When you shop for vanilla beans, you may see vanilla beans labeled as "Grade A" and "Grade B." Naturally, we are always drawn to "Grade A" because it sounds better. When it comes to vanilla beans, the different grades refer to moisture content. When you need to cook or bake with vanilla beans, Grade A vanilla beans are better to use because of the higher moisture content. However, when you make vanilla extract, Grade B vanilla beans are better to use because they are drier, and the lower moisture content helps produce a deeper vanilla flavor. Grade B vanilla beans are also a little cheaper, too.
There are different types of vanilla beans, such as Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian. Madagascar vanilla is often used for vanilla because it produces a rich, creamy vanilla flavor that is sweet and almost buttery. Mexican vanilla is smooth and almost a little spicy. Tahitian vanilla slightly floral with tones of ripe fruit. They are all great, and you can't go wrong with any of them. I used Tahitian vanilla beans because Tahitian vanilla extract is harder to find in stores and thought it would be neat for my friends to try something different.
Now, in terms of the alcohol, I use vodka because it is easy to find and more neutral in flavor. You do not need to use high quality vodka for this. Good ol' Trader Joe's has inexpensive 80 proof vodka. I need a few bottles to make enough vanilla extracts for party favors, so I recently went to Trader Joe's to went to pick some up. When I paid for it, the employee asked, "So, it's either been a bad week at work, or you are making something?" I explained that it was time to start steepin' beans for my party! ;) You can also use bourbon or rum, but I prefer vodka because it allows the vanilla flavor to "shine" more.
Once you have the vanilla beans and vodka, it's time to combine then! Make sure you have a large container that will hold slightly more volume than the amount of the vodka. I cut the vanilla beans in half so that it releases some of those vanilla bean specks into the extract, but you certainly don't need to do that. Some people will cut and scrape the vanilla beans. I opt to skip the scraping since there are so many vanilla beans that I use for making the extract. Once the vanilla beans are combined with the vodka, just put the cover back on the container, and leave it in a dark place for about six weeks. Every week or so, give it a shake. Each week, the color will continue to get darker, which means the vanilla's flavor is deepening. It starts off as an amber, and when it is done, it will almost look like a coffee color.
Six weeks later, your vanilla is ready. You can let is steep longer - the longer, the better! When you transfer it to smaller containers, you can also leave in the vanilla beans, if desired. This only helps richen the vanilla flavor. You can also use the dried vanilla beans to make vanilla sugar or vanilla salt.
I can't wait for the cookie party and to share this vanilla extract again with my friends. Bring on the sweetness of the season!!
Yields 16 2-oz. bottles of vanilla extract or 7 4-oz. bottles of vanilla extract
1/4 lb. vanilla beans (about 20-23 large vanilla beans)
1 quart 70+ proof vodka (4 cups)
Chop the vanilla beans in half. In a large container capable of holding at least 36 ounces, add the chopped vanilla beans, and then pour the vodka over the beans, making sure they are completely submerged. Cover the container. Allow the container to sit in a dark place for at least 6 weeks, and once a week, give it a good shake.
Six weeks later, you can transfer the vanilla extract to smaller bottles. You can leave the beans in the alcohol or remove them. If you leave the vanilla beans in the bottle, when the bottle is 1/3 empty, you can add more vodka and allow the extract to steep for another 6 weeks.
Source: Inspired by many blogs and Pinterest :)