Vanilla extract- made from the cured seed pod of the vanilla orchid- is very easy to make. The quality of homemade extract can be superior to many commercial extracts. Very high quality vanilla beans at low prices are now available online. Recently I purchased a bundle of 40 fresh, plump seven inch long beans for under $15.00 on Ebay. Vanilla beans come in several varieties, bourbon, Tahitian, Madagascar and Mexican. I find using a variety of beans results in an extract with a more complex vanilla aroma and flavor.
Alcohol is used as a base for extracting the essence of the vanilla bean. The flavor compounds in the beans are only soluble in alcohol. The longer the vanilla beans steep in the alcohol, the more intense the flavor becomes. For my style of baking I prefer the flavor of cream sherry, rum or a combination of both as the base of my extract. Many people prefer a more neutral base and use vodka. No need to start with premium bottles of base alcohol for this, buy the least expensive you can find.
1 bottle (750 ml) cream sherry, vodka or rum
8-10 vanilla beans slit in half lengthwise
Pour ¼ cup of the liquid from your bottle of sherry or rum and drop the split vanilla beans in. Return as much of the liquid to the bottle that will top it off and replace cap.
Place your bottle in a dark place (kitchen cupboard or pantry is fine) and shake every few days for 2 weeks and then once a month for 2-3 months. After that, your extract is ready to use in the same proportions as commercial extract. When your extract falls to about ½ of the bottle, top it off again with fresh sherry or rum. I have had a bottle with the original beans going for nearly 2 years. The aroma and flavor of the extract keep getting better with time. To use, measure exactly as your recipes require.
To give as a gift, decant your extract in attractive decorative glass bottles that can be found in houseware catalogs, houseware specialty stores and even dollar stores. I always put an extra bean or two split in half in my gift bottles so the person I give the extract to can continue to top the bottle off with new alcohol for a continuous source of vanilla extra for some time to come.