If you want to make your own flavors or medicines, learning to make your own extracts is the most useful place to start. They are downright easy to make and take very little hands-on time—and, as long as you follow a few tips, are very forgiving.
I introduced a friend to this in 2012. She was overwhelmed at the prospect of making her own extracts.
“Your husband makes mead!” I pointed out. Making extracts is far simpler than that process.
She agreed to let me teach her. All we needed was the jars (mason are good), the ingredients to be extracted (I brought vanilla1 and cocoa; she supplied ginger and cassia cinnamon), and the liquid base (which, for me, means potato vodka).
My friend was astonished at how easy it was. The “hardest” thing to get were the amber jars to store the extracts in, several months later after they were done—but that’s easy enough to find online if you know where to look.2
We had fun making them.
The only reason we haven’t repeated the experience? I moved hundreds of miles away.
What are extracts?
Extracts are ingredients that have been distilled or concentrated into liquid form. Plain fruit juice is actually an extract; juicers produce extracts. Problem is that most things don’t have enough liquid in them to be extracted like that, so you have to add a liquid base.
In kitchen lingo, flavoring extracts can be divided into two main types: “tinctures” and “infusions”. Generally speaking, tinctures are more concentrated than infusions, where you don’t consume them without incorporating them into something else. Infusions are usually consumed without inclusion or incorporation into something else (such as a cup of coffee). Infusions generally steep (soak) for a matter of minutes or hours, and they are shelf-stable for a matter of days (or possibly a few weeks, if kept in the fridge). Tinctures steep (soak) for a matter of weeks or months, and they can be shelf-stable for months or years.
If you’ve ever made extra-strong coffee to flavor something, that was a form of infusion. Tea is a form of infusion (which is one reason why you’re actually not supposed to boil it, but that’s a conversation for another day).
Infusions are good for things that you need quickly or for the short term, while tinctures are better for things that you’ll want to use over a long time.
Common liquids for infusions: water*, oil, vinegar.
Common liquids for tinctures: alcohol*, glycerin.
Note that you can “infuse” alcohol, but that’s where the “concentration” comes in. It’s the difference between a vanilla Smirnoff® and a vanilla liquor—you drink the Smirnoff when you want something that tastes like vanilla, but you add the liquor to give a cocktail a vanilla flavor.
The items marked with an asterisk (*) are the usual liquids used for those things, for reasons relating to expense, shelf stability, and how easy it is to use. (Oils, for example, can be difficult because it’s not easy to tell when they’ve gone rancid.)
That said, if you know the chemistry of what you want to extract, some things are soluble in one medium that aren’t soluble in others. So if you have specific parts of something that you want to extract, that’s something to look into and double-check.
Why make your own extracts?
- You want to save money on 100% pure extracts
- You want flavorings or tinctures you can’t get (or can’t easily get) at the store.
- You want to avoid or use extracts with a specific base, whether due to allergies or convictions.
Reason #1: You want to save money.
Extracts can be expensive, particularly if you want something like a high-quality vanilla or a hard-to-find one like cocoa.
If you want 1 cup of high-quality vanilla extract (which can often let you use half the listed amount of vanilla in recipes), for about $25 US, you can get a DIY kit from Beanilla (which does not include the alcohol) or 1 ounce of vanilla beans from Mountain Rose Herbs. (Note that I’ve never yet ordered from Beanilla, but I have used Mountain Rose Herbs several times.) Depending on where you get your vanilla or what kind you want to use, that can be quite a savings.
Reason #2: You want to make special flavors.
Cocoa extract really suits the flavor of taco, and you can easily get roasted cocoa nibs from Mountain Rose Herbs.
If you prefer fruit, Nuts.com has a variety of options; I’ve made a Bing cherry extract.
I also use it for specific ingredients that aren’t necessarily the easiest to find, like motherwort, which means “mother’s herb”. (It’s an all-around good herb for women, unless you’re prone to bleeding, and it’s a nice sedative for me.) I’ve also made tinctures of licorice root (which is naturally a bit sweet) and pau d’arco (which has a lot of uses but can be tough to work with).
Reason #3: You have allergies3 or preferences.
I’m allergic to rice. My flatmate is allergic to corn. A lot of people are allergic to wheat or gluten. Pre-made extracts, when they have alcohol, tend to use whatever’s available. Distilled alcohol is theoretically supposed to be safe, for allergy sufferers, but the problem is that assumes that allergy sufferers are either able to handle trace amounts or reacting to something that gets removed in distillation.
For some allergy sufferers, that’s true, and they can have distilled alcohol just fine. Unfortunately, I know from experience that I can’t have any form of rice alcohol or rice vinegar.
I also prefer alcohol-base extracts. They’re a lot less likely to go bad and a lot harder to mess up making. To make thing easy for allergies, I stick to using the Luksusowa vodka, which is 100% potato. It means I have to double-check if people who eat my food are allergic to potato or the nightshade family, but at least the rest of us can eat it, fine. (Potato, tomato, and some other popular veggies are in the nightshade family, and they are inflammatories. Some people are more sensitive to that than others.)
If you, your friends, or your family members have allergies, you’ll have to do your own research for what kind of base to use. Vodka is traditional, due to its mild or non-existent flavor, but any distilled liquor will work.
If you want to avoid alcohol, you can use glycerin, but making the extract will require more hands-on work, and it’ll probably go bad in 6 months to a year.
How do you make your own extracts?
Making an extract is easy and takes very little time on your part, though there’s a wait of 4 weeks to 6 months (…or longer) between putting it in the jar and straining it and rebottling it.
How I Make an Extract or Tincture
- a glass jar for making extract (recommended: mason or canning jars)
- alcohol or glycerin to fill jar (recommended: alcohol, ideally vodka)
- dried item to be turned into extract
- a filter to strain out the item (recommended: cheesecloth)
- a dropper to help get the strained liquid into the bottle (optional)
- a glass jar(s) for storing extract (recommended: tinted glass with dropper)
Sanitize glass jar to be used to make extract.
Make sure the jar is completely dry. (I use paper towels.) This is important. One drop of water can let something nasty grow in what you're making.
If you want to get it done sooner or are using glycerin: Break up what you're making and extract of. Crush it, cut it up, whatever. The smaller it is, the faster the extract will be done—but when you grind something up or apply heat, it can also damage some constituents, so be careful so you don't destroy the very reason you're trying to make it.
Fill the jar 1/3 to 1/2 way with whatever you want as an extract (or measure or weigh it, but that's more complicated). If it's something like a leaf or flower that'll probably expand a lot, only fill the jar about 1/3 of the way. If it's something that won't expand much like a root or fruit, fill the jar 1/2 way.
Fill the jar the rest of the way with your liquid. Make sure the dry material is 100% covered. Otherwise you're asking for nasties to come grow in your extract.
Put lid on, with a label with what it is and the date you started it.
Store in a cool, dry place where it won’t get sunlight. (I use the bottom drawer in my herb cupboard.) Check on it every so often to make sure it doesn't expand past the top of the liquid, that everything stays covered in the liquid.
If you want to get it done sooner or are using glycerin: Shake the jar every so often, ideally 1–2 times per day if you're using glycerin or need it ASAP, but intermittent is fine. Always double-check that everything's still submerged, afterwards.
Whether you're shaking it or just keeping an eye on it, there will be a point where it's not getting any darker or more saturated with time. (The color can get so pretty…)
This is when you can first extract it. If you chopped up what you put in and shook it regularly, this can happen in 4–6 weeks. If you used alcohol and are letting it sit, you want to wait at least 3–6 months. Longer is fine; it'll be fine as long as the alcohol is.
Sanitize and dry everything you'll use to strain and rebottle the extract (which is especially important if you're using glycerin), then f
Put the strained liquid into the sanitized-and-dried storage jar(s). Tinted glass is best, for ease of storage—you don't have to fret about sunlight exposure damaging it. Put a label on your jar with what it is, when you started it, and when you strained it. This will let you repeat the process or tweak it, later.
Enjoy your extract or tincture!
If you want more on using vinegar or glycerin, on using fresh herbs for extract, or some ideas for blends, Wellness Mama has more information.
Some items, like walnuts, actually use a different part of the plant to produce the extract than what you usually eat. (I still want to try to make an extract from the actual crushed nut, just to see what happens.)
What can you do with your extracts (and tinctures)?
Anything and everything you like. Baking, coffee, smoothies, cooking—a bit of cocoa extract actually adds a nice rounding out to taco, believe it or not. Extracts have a long use as flavorings.
But extracts and tinctures can also be used as home remedies.
Ginger, for example, can reputably aid the digestion and improve circulation, and it’s an anti-inflammatory. Ginger tea with honey and lemon is a cold remedy for a reason—but ginger tea can have a far stronger flavor than you want. Use a half-teaspoon of ginger extract instead, for benefit that you can then, perhaps, hide with other flavors.
When I’m using things for remedy purposes, I’ll often put it in cranberry juice (which is a strong flavor that I enjoy). I want to make a licorice root extract/tincture to see if that keeps the syrupy sweet flavor of the root, so I could use it as a sweetener, since I need to be careful with sugars and I’m allergic to stevia.
What are you waiting for?
What’s your favorite fruit' or what flavoring or herb have you wished was in an easy-to-use extract? Make it!
What extract or tincture are YOU going to make?