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Make vanilla extract at home for luxe flavor at a fraction of the cost

For the holidays, homemade vanilla extract is a gift that requires just a sliver of your time.  (Laura Chase de Formigny/For the Washington Post)
For the holidays, homemade vanilla extract is a gift that requires just a sliver of your time. (Laura Chase de Formigny/For the Washington Post)
By Olga Massov Special to the Washington Post

By now we’ve helped ourselves to more than one plate of Thanksgiving leftovers, and the turkey of a few days’ past is now a distant memory. Our thoughts have firmly moved on to the holiday season and the trappings of it, most prominent of which is, perhaps, gift giving. Finding just the right thing for each person can be a challenge, but here’s a homemade gift that requires just a sliver of your time: vanilla extract.

Vanilla extract is so easy, so cost-effective and so satisfying, you might decide you’ll never again shell out your hard-earned money for the pre-made stuff in a tiny vial. Instead, make extract in larger containers and marvel at your own industriousness. To start your own extract, you’ll need to procure plump, moist and hopefully ethically sourced vanilla beans and buy a decent-quality spirit such as vodka.

Neither is cheap, but if you consider that a 2-ounce vial of premium vanilla extract can cost anywhere from $12 to $15, and you’re making a 750-milliliter batch, the math starts to make sense in favor of making your own. For vessels, you don’t need to look far: Use existing jam jars, old kombucha bottles (I prefer vessels with a mouth wide enough for me to fish out the vanilla bean should I want to use actual vanilla caviar in something such as homemade ice cream) or anything that hasn’t retained a smell of whatever once inhabited it.

Once you’re armed with a spirit of your choice – I like vodka for its neutral canvas, but I’ve also used brandy, rum and whiskey – vanilla beans and a container, it’s time to make the extract. Fill the jar or bottle with the alcohol, add beans corresponding to the total volume of the container (a general guideline is to use one vanilla bean per 2 to 3 ounces of a spirit).

Now, you can drop the vanilla beans as they are (Ina Garten’s method), or you can do what I do, which is to slice the vanilla beans lengthwise down the middle and then plop them into the liquid. Screw on the top or seal the lid, put it away where it’s cool and dark, and that’s it! I mean, almost. Then, you wait: You need about one month to get your vanilla extract to become usable and a daily check-in, which is nothing more than just a couple of vigorous shakes to get everything mixed together.

If you miss a day of shaking, don’t panic. Once the month is up, you can divide your extract into small vials and hand them to the lucky few you’ve chosen. If you want to give the extract away sooner than that, divide the liquid into smaller containers, and add the appropriate number of vanilla beans. Add a maturity date to the label and tell the recipient to give it a daily shake until it reaches that date.

And, should they break into the batch earlier, no harm’s done – the extract might not be as potent, but it’ll still be fragrant and flavorful. And even if the recipient doesn’t bake, present the extract as an instant mood enhancer. Have them dab their wrists with a drop of the stuff and inhale. I don’t know a single soul who doesn’t take a whiff of quality vanilla and smile.

Make ahead: The extract must be made at least 1 month in advance.

Storage notes: The extract can be stored in a cool, dark place indefinitely. It is best to store the extract in wide-mouth jars so that you can easily remove the beans for other uses.

Where to buy: Ethically sourced vanilla beans can be found at Burlap & Barrel and Nielsen-Massey, among other online and bricks-and-mortar retailers.

Notes: If you want to make a different amount of vanilla extract, a general guideline is 1 vanilla bean per 2 to 3 ounces of spirit.

For a never-ending supply of extract, top off with a spirit and fresh vanilla beans as needed, adding proportional amounts of each. Depending on how much or little you add, you may want to wait a week or so before using your extract, or if the amount is one-third of the jar or less, you can use it right away.

After your extract has steeped, you can remove the split beans and use them elsewhere as you normally would, scraping off the vanilla seeds and adding them to your sweet goods. When you’re done with a vanilla bean (i.e. it has been used in extract, and you have scraped out the seeds for other purposes), give the remaining pod a quick rinse, pat it dry and store in your sugar canister to make vanilla sugar.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

10 to 12 plump vanilla beans

One (750-milliliter) bottle vodka, bourbon, rum or brandy

Grab an airtight, wide-mouth glass jar, about a quart, and set it near your workspace. Using a sharp paring knife, split the beans lengthwise. Any vanilla seeds that get stuck on the blade, transfer them to the jar. Place the split vanilla beans in the jar and add enough vodka to cover. Close the lid, and put away for at least 1 month in a cool, dark place, until the liquid becomes vanilla extract.

It’s best to give the jar a gentle daily shake; in time, you’ll see the liquid turn darker, with more of the vanilla flavor leaching out and coloring the liquid. (This will be more difficult to tell with darker spirits such as bourbon or brandy, but you should still expect to see darkening.) The extract will be ready when the liquid turns inky-dark and fragrant. Use as needed.

Yield: Makes scant 3 cups

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