We've talked here at Stick a Fork In It about infusing your own liquors, which is fun, legal, and inebriating… but the same forces that can infuse celery seed into your vodka or dried chiles into your tequila reposado (which is really, REALLY good) can also save you a heapin' helpin' o' cash. I'm talking about the biggest ripoff in the baking aisle: vanilla extract.
That's right, vanilla extract is a damn ripoff. A bottle of the good stuff–the double-strength stuff–costs $30 a cup; a bottle of the single-strength, supermarket-shelf type costs as much as $20 a cup. For the love of Pete, why? Why?
It's so easy to make at home. It's just vanilla beans, vodka, and time. Yes, this recipe takes time: depending on your particular beans and liquor, anywhere from six weeks to six months. Once you get it started, though, you can add more liquor or more beans to keep the concentrate at its optimal level–kind of like the never-ending bottle of vanilla extract. If you're feeling particularly magnanimous, you can give it out–those neat little brown-glass medicine bottles with the eyedroppers cost about a buck each from a specialty bottle shop (look online).
Here's what you'll need to get started:
1 fifth (750 mL) vodka
8 vanilla beans (or 16 vanilla beans for double strength)
Don't use premium vodka for this; it's not worth the money. I just troll the insanely long vodka aisle at my favorite liquor store and buy whatever's reasonable looking and cheap, usually about $10 a fifth. Vanilla beans shouldn't cost more than a dollar or two each; you can go to My Spice Sage and buy 32 of the things in a shrink-wrapped package for $27.50 and free shipping.
Now comes about five minutes' worth of work: split each vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp paring knife. Pour a shot out of the vodka bottle, then slip the halved vanilla beans into the bottle. Cap tightly and shake. Put in a dark spot and shake once a week until it looks, well, like vanilla extract. Could be six weeks; could be six months.
If you want the extract to infuse more quickly, use the spine of the paring knife to scrape out the seeds; put the seeds and the scraped beans in the bottle of vodka.
By my estimation, you'll have spent $18 to get what amounts to 3 cups of vanilla extract; at $6 a cup, that represents a savings of 70% off the high-end single-strength stuff, which is made by chopping the beans and sometimes by heating them. I call that a win.