I hate when stores start Christmas preparations as soon as back-to-school stuff is put away.
But if you want to make the easiest homemade vanilla extract as a lovely foodie Christmas gift or to use to make your homemade Irish Cream truly from scratch, you’re going to have to start in August!
Luckily I have a faster way, that also happens to be WAY less expensive – score and double score!
Normally, homemade vanilla extract takes 4-6 months to be completely finished, although you can start using it after only 4 weeks. It makes a lovely little gift in dark amber bottles (found on Amazon) with a personalized label. Use this faster and more frugal way, and it only will take about an hour total (maybe 15 mins longer than the “normal” vanilla extract, but you’ll save $$$ on vanilla beans):
10 minutes to order supplies, 15 minutes to prepare the extract supplies, 10 minutes to heat the vodka, 5 minutes to do dishes, a few seconds per day to shake jars, and another 10 minutes to fill and label your little bottles.
Considering it costs less to make a half-gallon of homemade vanilla extract than it does to buy 16 ounces or so of the good stuff in a store, you’re getting “paid” a pretty awesome hourly wage.
If that’s not enough motivation to make your own, read the ingredients on your bottle of vanilla. Chances are unless you have a superbly excellent brand, there’s some weird additive or a corn sweetener in there (high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, etc.). Your vanilla will have two simple ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka. Done.
Frugal and Fast Homemade Vanilla Extract: The Recipe
Ingredients and supplies needed:
- 1/4 pound vanilla beans (about 20-25 pods)
- 1-gallon vodka, any inexpensive brand will do (or bourbon, or rum for gluten-free)
- sharp paring knife or kitchen scissors
- very clean wide-mouth quart or half-gallon jars with lids
- little amber glass bottles (if making gifts)
- cute labels for your bottles
The ratio of beans to alcohol ranges from 8 vanilla beans (~1 ounce) for each cup of vodka all the way down to 2 beans per cup. One quart = 4 cups and a half gallon is 8 cups to help you do the math. 😉
But which to use? I say go frugal and use as few as possible…If you warm up the vodka you can use as little as 1 bean per 2/3 cup alcohol!!!
Frugal and faster. Oh, yes! You can also put your jars in the sun on warm days to speed up the extraction.
Make sure your materials, especially the jar for extraction, are as clean as can be (running it through a dishwasher on hot with heated dry should do it). You don’t want to risk weird stuff growing in your vanilla since it will be sitting at room temperature for perhaps years.
Count out your beans: 6 beans for a quart, 12 for a half-gallon. Feel free to toss in a few extra for stronger vanilla. It can’t be too strong if you love baking!
To prepare the beans, you have 3 choices:
- Cut the beans lengthwise with a sharp paring knife and scrape out the seeds, using all of the parts in the alcohol.
- Snip the beans lengthwise and in half with clean kitchen scissors.
- Just snip the beans into smaller pieces so that they are totally immersed in the vodka and not sticking out the top.
Any of the methods work, but some believe that you will get a higher quality product and better flavor the more you open up the vanilla beans.
I chose to take a few extra minutes and really pull everything apart:
Heat the vodka until just warm (don’t boil it).
Put all the seeds and beans into the jar(s); cover with alcohol and shake well. Here’s what the concoction looks like on day one:
On the left is about 2 cups bourbon with the beans (an experiment), and the half-gallon of vodka is quite unattractive on the right. I cut those long beans sticking out of the vodka after I took this picture. Everything should be submerged.
I tried bourbon based on this recipe, although I’ve since learned that the fancy “bourbon vanilla extract” you can buy isn’t named after the alcohol but the type of vanilla beans. Both of them worked fine, and I ended up just mixing them together for storage after giving away the Christmas gifts.
Store it. Most sources say to store the vanilla in a dark place, away from direct sunlight, while it’s extracting. I chose to put the jars in a low cupboard; some simply use brown bottles instead. I’ve seen people put their little bottles IN direct sunlight, and the extract worked out just great, so it seems that this is a difficult recipe to mess up! I wonder if, like adding heat to the vodka, sunlight might speed UP the process!
Shake it! For the first two weeks, try to remember to shake up your bottles or jars every day. After that, give them a good shake once a week (or whenever you bump into them in the cupboard). If you forget…it all still seems to work out. Lovely recipe, really.
It won’t take long to see results. Here is my vodka jar on day two already:
Use it! After two weeks, you can use your vanilla extract. If you have four weeks, I’d try to wait that long before bottling it for gifts. The vanilla won’t really get any darker after 3 months. (Regular extract recipes take 4-6 months to be ready!) You can leave the vanilla beans in the vodka indefinitely and just pour off what you need for baking from the big jar or refill a smaller jar.
More Frugal Tips:
You can also try a second extraction with the same beans, although it might take a little longer to get a nice amber color. OR you can pour a little more vodka into your jar(s) whenever you remove a significant amount and it will keep perking along.
Feel free to put beans into your little jars too, and if you give it as a gift you can instruct the recipient that they can reuse the beans once again too. My MIL and SIL like to bring their little bottle back to me when it runs out, and that’s cool too! 🙂
Where to Get Vanilla Extract Supplies
Here’s your one-stop shopping mall!
- Vanilla beans: The best quality option per ounce that still felt affordable as of 7/26/2021 was this 1/4 pound package from Frontier via Amazon. You can also buy extract quality beans which are a bit cheaper and suitable for making extract, but you can’t slice them and scrape out the “caviar.”
- Of course check all of Amazon’s prices, too, as they fluctuate a lot and add new products all the time – keep in mind that vanilla is expensive! The vanilla beans might give you sticker shock, but you’re still saving a load of money with hardly any time investment, and like a nice bottle of wine, a bottle of vanilla only gets better as it gets older.
- Vodka: 1.75 liters from your local grocery or liquor store.
- 2 and 4-ounce amber bottles: Specialty Bottle has great prices and decent shipping. Try to get a friend to go in on a dozen with you. Two ounces is very small (for acquaintances) and 4 ounces is more appropriate for people you love. 8 ounces for people you really love who bake a lot! (They also sell gallon jars, if you’re looking for good storage solutions, but be aware that the shipping is approximately the same amount as the jars for that item.)
- Labels: grab some basic mailing labels at your local office supply or try these cute ones from Amazon: small fancy shape labels, waterproof white labels (made for essential oils so you’ll have a bunch of tiny circles too), large scuff-resistant labels made for water bottles (I can see these being great for labeling quart jars).
- Just make cute labels with a colored font using your word processing program. Simple, and nearly free.
- Sources for the recipe (I always find when I’m making something brand new, I like to read a number of different methods so I feel most comfortable doing it myself):
What do I do When My Vanilla Beans are Used Up?
When you’ve used the beans as much as possible, you can still make vanilla sugar by covering the leftover (already used) beans with sugar, letting it sit, and shaking it occasionally for a few weeks. The sugar will be lightly flavored with vanilla, perfect for coffees or this recipe for homemade yogurt. (Try a healthier sweetener for your family, though – follow the Sweet, Sweet summer series for more!)
Ta-da! Now you’re ready for Christmas!
Other Homemade Gift Ideas