Gifts-in-a-Jar: Jams, Spreads & Sauces
How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract and Never Buy Imitation Stuff Again
During Christmas, a.k.a. the ultimate season for baking and swapping all meals for cookies, vanilla extract is in high demand. Many store-bought extracts contain dextrose, corn syrup, sugar, and artificial flavors. Oftentimes, they’re even watered down. Lame! Whether you’re a seasoned baker wanting a healthier alternative, or searching for awesome DIY food gifts in a jar, you really can’t go wrong with homemade vanilla extract—especially when it’s made with pure and simple ingredients.
To pull this off, you really don't have to be Martha Stewart or someone who spends entire lunch breaks on Pinterest. You’ll only need vanilla beans, alcohol, and a tiny bit of patience (legitimately the hardest part) to make your own vanilla extract at home. Yep, vanilla extract is made with liquor. Once you're done, start adding it to everything—granola, quick bread, French toast, oatmeal—and you'll never buy the store-bought version again.
First, know your beans. No beans about that! (Oh, god, help me.) The guys can get pricey and that’s totally OK since vanilla beans are one of world’s most labor-intensive crops. I know you’re probably on a budget like me, but vanilla is just one of those things you should never skimp on: always buy the real stuff, never the imitation crap. The most common varieties of vanilla are Madagascar and Bourbon. Others include smoky and spicy Mexican vanilla, floral, fruity, and chocolatey Tahitian vanilla, milky Ugandan vanilla, and smoky and woody Indonesian vanilla. Take your pick, or mix and match. If you’d like to try a few, purchase a sampler of beans from Beanilla or eBay and learn which varieties you prefer.
It’s also worth knowing the difference between Grade A and Grade B vanilla beans. Grade A beans (also called “gourmet” or “prime”) are usually what sit in the spice aisle most groceries. They're best used in recipes that call for paste or seeds. Grade B vanilla beans are specifically ideal for extracting because they’re drier and have a lower water content. Although Grade A vanilla beans are sold by the bean, Grade B is sold by weight, which means you can save a buck. Hot tip!
Next, bust out the booze. Most of the time, vodka is used to make extract. Its neutral taste allows the pure vanilla to shine. With vodka, the taste of the end product will come very close to the store-bought version. But rum, brandy, and bourbon work, too, depending on how much flavor variety you're really looking for.
In general, cheap liquor is questionable... like, college-questionable. But when it comes to making vanilla extract, you can go cheap without sacrificing flavor. Wódka, Old Crow, and El Dorado are probably familiar to 19-year-old you. These are actually perfect, unless bottom-shelf brands trigger memories of a frat basement. Alternatively, you can reach for something slightly more expensive—for your sake. Whether you decide to buy new bottles or use whatever’s left from last weekend (no judgements), just make sure the liquor is at least 40 percent alcohol—that's 80 proof.
It doesn’t take long to see and smell the results, but it does take a few months for the alcohol to turn into extract. Plan ahead if you’re giving homemade vanilla extract as holiday gifts. Start in September and your DIY food gifts should be ready just in time for the holiday season. Obviously that’s not always practical, and you might start bottling in early December. In that case, when gifting, tie a tag onto the bottle or place a sticker on the jar indicating when it’ll be ready for use. In six weeks, the alcohol will be infused with vanilla, but it’s only after three months that it truly transforms into extract. Much like a fine wine, vanilla extract matures over time when stored in a cool, dark place. The longer it steeps, the more flavorful it will be. In the image below, from left to right, is extract that sat for 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
This homemade vanilla extract recipe is totally customizable depending on the size of your bottle or jar and how many you'd like to fill. Here's a good rule of thumb: Use 2 to 3 vanilla beans for every half cup of alcohol, or 6 to 7 beans for every cup. It’s all relative. Let’s get started!
Flatten each vanilla bean by dragging the dull side of a knife across its surface. This will help disperse the seeds evenly throughout the pod. Split each bean in half lengthwise, leaving it connected at one end. STEP 2
Place the vanilla beans into a clean, empty jar. Pour in just enough alcohol to fill the jar, making sure the beans are completely covered. Seal tightly.STEP 3
Store the jar in a cool, dark place for a few months, giving it a little shake every other week or so. You can also open it on occasion to sniff or taste.STEP 4
Once three months have passed, you can remove the pods and transfer the extract to dark-glass jars to preserve the flavor. Leaving the seeds in the extract will lend a stronger flavor to your baked goods. If you prefer a speck-less extract, strain the seeds out with a coffee filter, cheesecloth, or nut milk bag (which is a real thing; thanks, Gwyneth). Once the pods dry out, you can scrape the seeds from their insides and use as a paste.
Or, you can forget straining the extract altogether, and just keeping topping off the bottle when it starts running low. If you chose to do this, keep adding new vanilla beans to the bottle as most of the flavor from the original beans would have already been extracted. Go forth into that vanilla-infused night.
If you like your food with an extra kick, this recipe is for you. Even something as sweet as honey can use a little heat, and we know plenty of Southerners who require a dose of hot sauce with every meal. Delicious drizzled over biscuits and fried chicken (and chicken-and-waffles) or whisked into a vinaigrette, this chile-infused honey will make a welcome addition to anyone’s pantry. Around the holidays, it’s smart to stock up on little presents to give to hostesses, neighbors, your kids’ teachers, or anyone else that might stop by. When you give a food gift, you know they’re going to actually use it, and giving something homemade adds the most thoughtful touch. This Hot Honey will stand out amongst the holiday bark, bourbon balls, spiced pecans, and chocolate-covered pretzels. Don’t get us wrong—we’d love to receive all of those wonderful treats—but Hot Honey is unique against the lineup of usual holiday gifts, and it’s especially perfect for your friend who craves a little spice. To gift, present it in a cute jar jazzed up with washi tape and wrapped with a pretty bow. This Hot Honey keeps well, too, so you can make a few batches to save up for gifting purposes and have some for yourself, too.
Make Granola That Isn't Full of Life-Shortening Artificial Garbage
Ditch store-bought granola—you know, the kind that’s packed with refined sugars and unhealthy fats—for healthy homemade granola. Making granola from scratch is much, much cheaper than buying it in the store, and it can never hurt to save a few pennies during the holiday season. Save some of this olive oil granola for yourself and store the rest in mason jars for DIY food gifts. In this homemade granola recipe, roasted oats are lightly coated in a sweet layer of maple syrup and olive oil. Flaky sea salt compliments the sweetness of the syrup. Chia or flax seeds will lend your granola a boost of nutrition and flavor. Feel free to play around with the added nuts and seeds and do whatever feels right.
Olive Oil Granola
We call to spoon the jam into 4 (8-ounce) jars, but you can also opt for 8 (4-ounce) jars to spread the love a little further.
Homemade Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread Tastes Way Better Than Nutella
One of Italy’s greatest inventions is gianduja (pronounced “john-doo-yah”), the beloved combination of chocolate and hazelnut that we know as Nutella. It might surprise you to learn that homemade Nutella offers more flavor without the additives and preservatives that are in the store-bought version. The pure, nutty flavors of the hazelnuts come through stronger. So does the intense taste of rich, dark chocolate. All the steps in the recipe below might seem daunting at first, but I promise, making chocolate-hazelnut spread at home is so darn easy. A food processor or Vitamix will do all the work—you just have to sit back and wait for the magic to happen.
But there is one problem: To make homemade Nutella, you have to toast and skin a ton of hazelnuts, and the traditional "roast-and-rub" method is anything but easy. Your fingers will turn red from aggressively rubbing hot nuts with a kitchen towel, and you run the risk of having a million tiny flakes of hazelnut skin spill onto your kitchen floor. Thanks to Alice Medrich, you no longer have to fear peeling hazelnuts. Watch this video of her showing Julia Child how to easily skin hazelnuts. First, you blanch the hazelnuts in a pot of boiling water and baking soda, which loosens the skins. Then run the nuts under cold water and rub them between your fingers, and the skins will slide right off.
Fill a medium pot halfway with water and place on the stove over high heat. Once the water comes to a boil, throw in 3 tablespoons baking soda and watch as it foams. (This part is super cool.) Drop the hazelnuts into the pot and boil for three minutes. The water will turn a very dark reddish-brown—don’t freak out. That’s totally normal. STEP 2
Drain the nuts and quickly place them in a prepared ice bath. Run cold water over the nuts as you work, pinching peel and rubbing the the nuts between your fingers. You will be so surprised by how easily the peel falls off.
Dry the peeled nuts thoroughly with a kitchen towel and place on a baking sheet. Roast the nuts at 375°F for 15 minutes, shaking the sheet once for even roasting. The nuts may need a few additional minutes depending on how well, or not-so-well, you dry them. Keep an eye on them and remove from the oven once golden brown and aromatic. Let cool for 5 minutes.STEP 4
Place the roasted hazelnuts to the bowl of a food processor and pulse for a few minutes until chopped. Reserve a few tablespoons of hazelnuts if you’d like to make a chunky spread.
That’s not the consistency you want (obviously), so continue processing in 1-minute intervals, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl. After five minutes, you will have crumbs that look similar to almond meal. Again, that’s not the consistency you want either—keep blending.
The crumbs will start clumping together. Blend a bit longer. When it’s ready, it will change to a butter-like consistency and start forming into a ball. STEP 7
Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove bowl from microwave and stir. Repeat twice, or until all the chocolate has melted. Add the chocolate to the bowl of the food processor and blend together with the hazelnut butter, until it becomes a thick paste.
Add maple syrup, salt, and almond oil, and process until smooth and glossy.
Your hazelnut spread is done once all the ingredients are mixed in. If you find it too thick, keep blending. Fold in reserved chopped hazelnuts (if any). STEP 10
Place the chocolate-hazelnut spread in an airtight container, or a mason jar for gifting. It will last three weeks at room temperature and tastes incredible on a slice of toast. Other carb-loaded options (not that you need them), include waffles, crepes, and pancakes.
Dip Trio Appetizer Kit
To make Southwest Chipotle Dip, Bacon, Onion, and Cheddar Dip, and Zesty Marinara Dip, combine all ingredients in a small jar or airtight container. Write mixing instructions on a gift tag or card.
This crowd-pleasing savory condiment is fantastic on crackers and sandwiches (including grilled cheese).
Carrot Cake Jam
This is a wonderful jam that tastes just like Grandma’s carrot cake and is a real topping treat for biscuits, toast and waffles.
Hot Pepper Sauce
This colorful sauce with red and green Thai chile peppers is a great gift for people who like to add a little heat to their recipes.
Fresh Herb Mayonnaise
Use fresh herbs from your garden to make a tasty gift for your foodie friends.
Homemade Caramel Sauce
Christmas food gifts are especially welcome when they do double duty. This holiday sauce can be served as a creamy dip for fruit or as a topping for the impressive and delicious holiday dessert, Mile-High turtle Ice Cream Pie.
Sun-Dried Tomato Jam
Tie a bow on a jar of this versatile spread and include a card with serving suggestions. Friends can enjoy it as a chutney, pizza sauce, or even spooned on a log of goat cheese for a speedy appetizer.
Spicy Thyme and Garlic Oil
Pour this herb-infused dipping oil into an elegant bottle, fasten a sprig of thyme around the neck, and present it with a crusty loaf.
Serve savory tapenade as an hors d'oeuvre with baguette slices and goat cheese, as a sandwich topping for assorted deli meats, or as a relish for grilled chicken or fish. Store the tapenade in an airtight container for up to one week.
Sweet Onion Relish
This low-calorie onion relish doubles as a topping for grilled meat or chicken or as an appetizer served with crackers or spooned over warm brie. Make a few extra batches to keep on-hand so when guests at your party ask for the recipe, you can just present them with their own jar.
Lemon Verbena Vinegar
Just three ingredients results in a stunning homemade gift that can be made months ahead. Pack it with a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil for a do-it-yourself vinaigrette set.For other flavored vinegar options, try Lemon Thyme Vinegar and Purple Basil Vinegar.
This spoonable jam can double as a fruity topping for waffles or ice cream. Use frozen berries if fresh ones aren't available, then tuck a jar in a gift basket with some homemade scones or recipe cards for a sweet wintertime treat.
Package tangy Citrus Curd in pretty jars tied with a ribbon. Offer gift recipients the suggestion to serve the curd over warm bread, fresh fruit, ice cream, or pound cake.
Lemon and ginger highlight the flavor of luscious fall pears. Spoon this condiment into glass jars and tie with gold ribbon or raffia to show off its warm, tawny color.
Peachy Barbecue Sauce
Your family and friends will be eating high on the hog when they receive a bottle of this phenomenal sauce. Sweet, tangy, and spicy all at once, it's so good you'll want to keep some for yourself.
Kumquats in Spiced Syrup with Cloves, Cinnamon, and Star Anise
Resembling tiny baby oranges, kumquats have a sweet, perfumed skin and tart flesh. This recipe turns them into succulent golden orbs—an impressive and elegant holiday gift.
Sweet-Hot Honey Mustard
Take along a jar of this zippy condiment the next time you're invited to a holiday dinner. Delicious with roasted meats, it's a thoughtful hostess gift and keeps for up to a month.
Peach-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
This sweet and tangy vinaigrette can be drizzled over fresh greens or used as a topping for pork or chicken. Packaged in a decorative bottle with a homemade tag, this recipe makes an ideal gift for the cooks on your list.
Red Pepper Jelly Vinaigrette
Pair this sweet, piquant vinaigrette with fresh greens and tangy goat cheese. It also works as a marinade for chicken or pork.
Roasted Pine Nut Butter
A little 2- or 3-ounce jar of this indulgent nut butter makes a fine food gift, like a present of caviar.
Vidalia Onion & Peach Relish
Give the gift of summer in a jar with this sweet onion and peach relish. to make your gift even more special, give a jar of the relish along with a round of goat cheese and some gourmet crackers.
Caramelized Ginger Pears
A jar of these gingered pears is both a tasty and thoughtful gift. Suggest serving this homemade food gift over a favorite dessert, or over baked brie and serve as an appetizer.
Cranberry Orange Marmalade
A lazy simmer transforms just four ingredients into a sweet-tart spread. Spoon the marmalade into glass jars to show off its dazzling color and tie with matching ribbon.
Chunky Hot Sauce
Fermentation is the secret to this robust, piquant sauce. Use your favorite chiles here, or blend fiery ones with sweet ones to customize your own. As for the consistency, we love the sauce in all of its chunky glory, but if you want a smooth, looser take, press it through a wire-mesh strainer.
Ultimate Fudge Sauce
This creamy sauce tastes delicious over ice cream, cheesecake, or warm brownies. Try stirring some of the sauce into coffee or use it as a fondue-type dip with fresh fruit and cubed pound cake.
With its gorgeous color and tangy flavor from quince and lemon, this traditional marmalade would make a great gift.
Top jars of Holiday Jam with batting and homespun and decorate with buttons...great for sharing with friends and neighbors!