Making extracts is so simple, but there are two reasons I procrstinated. 1) Vanilla beans are expensive and/or hard to find (vanilla being the most used flavoring extract in my home), and 2) they take a long time, and I may or may not have mentioned before I have issues with delayed gratification.
But recently I've been working with herbal extracts- making them from dried or fresh herbs I grow, forage, or buy as medicine- and decided that it was close enough to making flavoring extracts that it was about time I start.
First order of business- find vanilla beans that don't break the bank. The ones at the grocery store were no good. The cheapest I found was $7 for a SINGLE BEAN, and it takes 3 beans per cup of liquid. So I perused some message boards and found an amazon store that sells bulk vanilla beans and got 1/2 a lb for $15. That's a lot more than 3... plus I got 10 free beans with my order. It is also worth noting that not all vanilla beans are the same- there are madagascar, bourbon, tahitian... and many more I can't remember. I ordered 1/2 lb of madagascar and the 10 free beans I recieved were tahitian. I can't really tell the difference in the taste or smell yet, but do some research before you buy because the different types have subtle taste differences.
Second order of business-alcohol. And I don't mean that you need to drink. The flavor compounds are extracted and preserved using alcohol. I don't have a problem with this at all, since I've been known to drink a little (too much) on occasion. But if you think it bothers you, go ahead and go check your current bottle of vanilla (or any other natural) extract. Unless you have imitation or the rare bottle of low alcohol extract, your vanilla is about 40 proof (20%) alchohol, give or take. But even if you are a teetotaler (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that) remember, you almost never use more than a teaspoon or two of alcohol, and the total amount of alcohol in the finished product will be lower than the alcohol content of a ripe banana or a bottle of kombucha. Still, you may feel weird walking into a liquor store and buying the next ingredient for this concoction- vodka, non flavored, 40 proof. If you do, though, I can't relate. I only feel like a freak when I get to the counter with a bottle of white rum, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of everclear (don't worry, I don't drink them... particularly the last one- they are for various extractions and preservation techniques).
The next step is to mix one cup of 40 proof vodka (or rum, if you think it would suit) with your flavoring of choice. I have so far done vanilla (3-6 beans, steep for at least a month, some sources said up to 3 months), coconut (1/3 cup fresh grated or store bought UNSWEETENED coconut, let steep 2 weeks) and orange (zest of 2 oranges plus 1/2 cup water, let steep five days).
Remember that none of this is a terribly exact science- well, the actual extraction of flavor compounds into various other substances IS actually science, but the means and methods that people use to do it vary. Most people seemed to say they use three beans to flavor their vanilla, but I found one source who stated anything with less than 6 beans was only vanilla vodka. Some use one bottle while another one steeps, while some simply top off the bottle with a little more vodka each time they use it, replacing beans every now and then (or not). And the steeping times I list are also subjective- I don't believe you can over steep any of these substances.
I haven't been able to use any of my extracts yet, but I have to say that there is something gratifying about seeing the liquid in the jar gradually change colors and begin to smell the flavor seeping out.
Oh, and if you are brave like me and buy a fresh coconut for this purpose, 1) wear gloves and just generally be careful- I diced my fingers good in a few places, and 2) pick up a bottle of rum, because you will have enough coconut left to make coconut rum! (link coming soon!)