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It is very easy to make vanilla extract at home, and in addition to being useful for home baking, home-made vanilla extract also makes a great gift. If you are thinking of preparing some vanilla extract to include in gifts, be aware that it takes a minimum of eight weeks to mature, and longer maturation periods are highly recommended, as the vanilla extract only gets better with age.
To make vanilla extract, you will need an alcohol such as brandy, vodka, or rum. Stay away from strongly flavored alcohols, as the flavoring will disrupt the vanilla extract. If you use something like vodka, any brand will do, but if you use brandy or rum, try to find a mid-range brand. Really cheap brands can acquire strange flavors in the steeping process, while more expensive varieties are great, but because of their cost maybe not the best choice.
You will also require vanilla beans. Many markets carry vanilla beans, and they are also available from health food stores or through mail order catalogs. Be aware that vanilla beans can be expensive, as they must be harvested, sweated to develop the vanillin compound which gives vanilla beans their flavor, dried, and then graded before they can be sold. Look for beans which feel oily, have a shiny appearance, and have a strong aroma.
Finally, you will require a jar of some kind. Glass containers are highly recommended for steeping vanilla extract; something like a canning jar can be a good choice. Wash your jar well before use, and apply a label with the date on which the extract was made, so that you will be able to reference this when checking on the extract later.
Start by pouring two cups of alcohol into the jar, leaving some room at the top. Then, partially split six vanilla beans, and drop them into the jar. These amounts can be scaled up or down as required for bigger and smaller recipes. Push the beans down against the bottom so that they bend, bringing more of the bean into contact with the alcohol, and then tightly cap the jar and store it in a cool dry place. After eight weeks, the vanilla extract should have developed a rich, dark color and an intense aroma. Steep it longer and it will get even stronger; as long as the vanilla extract is kept in a sealed container in a cool, dark, dry place, it will keep indefinitely.
If you want to give out vanilla extract as a gift, you can pour it into smaller containers or give it away in the same container you steeped it in. If you decant the extract into other containers, consider including a vanilla bean, which will allow the flavor to develop even more while adding a nice look to the finished product.
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