Full disclosure: I haven't owned a bottle of vanilla extract in close to 2 years. I was annually buying a big bottle of Massey vanilla to last a year of baking. I fell out of that habit when I couldn't validate the extra expense during a tight year. So yes, I have been lying. Most of the recipes I've tested/written with vanilla actually contained almond extract, vanilla powder (an odd xmas gift from way back) or vanilla beans. Vanilla beans are $0.99 each at the Flatbush co-op, about half or less what you would pay at the grocery store or online. Planning for Christmas baking I decided it was time to end my vanilla drought. Vanilla extract isn't a magical elixir squeezed from rare plants. It's just cheap alcohol infused with vanilla beans. I can do that, so can you. You need 4 things: a bottle of cheap booze, vanilla beans, a dark place, and time. Two of those things are free.
Small mouth glass bottles for storing are nice too. I made mine directly in the store bought booze, but bottled it down to give out to friends, and for easier pouring. Bottles are atrociously expensive at brick and mortar stores in NYC. I considered buying little bottles of vanilla at the dollar store, dumping the contents and refilling. It would have been cheaper then buying them at Sur La Table, but wasteful. In the end I found Specialty Bottle online. The bottles are cheap, but shipping and handling is expensive. Still a deal in the end. The quality of the vanilla is a good price compared to store bought.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
10-12 Vanilla beans
.75 ml cheap brandy or vodka
The proportion I found trolling the internet is 3-5 beans per cup of alcohol. A .75 liter bottle of alcohol is almost a 3 1/4 cups, so 10-12 beans. Break it down anyway you want for more or less vanilla extract.
Split the beans in half with a the tip of a sharp knife. Place beans in the bottle of alcohol. Shake and let sit in a dark place. Shaking every week or so is supposed to help develop the flavor, but can you prove it? Vanilla will be ready after 2 months. I've read that after 6 months the flavor will be at full force. My vanilla at 3 months seems a little better then after 2 months. Only experience and practice will tell. My last batch of cookies tasted great, so I'm on to something.
If you plan to bottle your vanilla I suggest sterilizing first by boiling in water for 1-2 minutes. Its difficult for bacteria to grow in alcohol but not mold. Anyways, you never know, and if you do know (cough cough, Dad) then let me know in the comments. I've stopped washing in soap in water to avoid the chance of leaving soap residue. Vanilla is a concentrated flavor, and I would hate to mess it up with dish detergent.
I bottled my vanilla with a 1/4 of a split bean. A little indicator of how the vanilla is made. Maybe by the time I remember to ship out all of the vanilla it will be at full strength.