Extracting Flavors

After going through two full bottles of vanilla extract for my holiday baking projects, I decided that perhaps it was time to look into something I've been meaning to do for a long time…make my own vanilla extract. I knew it was easy, but really never realized just how easy it is.

First, you buy a bottle of good quality vodka and make yourself and a friend a martini. (Note: this step does nothing to enhance the extract, but does leave room in the bottle to add the vanilla beans, as well as providing incentive to start the project in the first place.) Next, slice open three to four plump, vanilla bean pods (I prefer Tahitian beans,) scrape them and add the seeds and the pods to the bottle. Tightly reseal the bottle and place in a cool dark place for at least three months. Every week or so, give the bottle a little swirl and when the color is a nice, rich brown and the flavor is intense, it’s ready to go.

Before you use it, you can either strain the extract through a coffee filter, or, just leave the beans and seeds in there to let the flavor continue to intensify. When the bottle starts to run low, you can simply replenish it with some fresh pods and more alcohol, let that sit for a week or so, and then keep on using it. Talk about economical!

As I'm wont to do, I of course got thinking about what other flavorings might make for good extracts. I think that playing around with different types of alcohol, such as brandy, scotch or tequila, could bring interesting tones to things. As for flavorings, I'm thinking of experimenting with orange peel, mint leaves, coffee beans, cocoa nibs and cinnamon sticks as well as more hearty, savory flavors like rosemary, kaffir lime leaves, ginger and chili peppers.

Once I started to research homemade extracts, I found a number of great online resources which not only provided ideas for extract flavors, but also offered some new ways to incorporate them into food and beverages. Some flavor ideas that intrigued me include dried cherries, cloves, almonds (which I'd like to try toasted and raw), pine needles, lavender and rose petals. The possibilities are truly endless.

As for what to do with these extracts? Baking is the obvious option, but they are also great for cocktails (either on their own as the base, or as an addition with other alcohols), flavoring ice creams, enhancing vinaigrettes, marinades or sauces.

These extracts also make great gifts, and by going to sites like ebottles or stores such as Cost Plus, you can find small decorative bottles that make for a lovely presentation.

I'll have to update this post once I've mastered a few different flavors, but for now, I highly recommend you start saving money right away, and brew up your own batch of vanilla extract.

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