7 Substitutes for Vanilla Extract
First, let’s talk about vanilla! Vanilla is a spice derived from vanilla orchids that are primarily grown in Mexico. Three major species of vanilla are currently grown globally, all of which derive from a species originally found in Mexico.
The majority of the world’s vanilla is more commonly known as Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla, which is produced in Madagascar. Madagascar vanilla is considered more superior.
Vanilla is sold in its whole form, as a liquid, sugar, salt, oil, and extract, which is what we are talking about today. Vanilla extract remains the most popular use of vanilla and you will be hard pressed to find any cookbook that doesn’t include it at least once. Most people have a jar of vanilla extract at home!
To make vanilla extract, vanilla beans are macerated in alcohol and water. The result is a deep, dark liquid that may or may not be strained to remove any seeds. A more readily available, heavily processed alternative exists, which is sometimes mislabeled vanilla extract but is actually vanillin, which is a by–product of the wood pulp industry.
Vanillin is often marketed as a vanilla flavoring because it is so cheap, whereas natural vanilla can be quite expensive. After all, growing vanilla pods is labor-intensive. Vanilla is actually the third-most expensive spice in the world!
Its price has fluctuated a lot in the last few years and is currently at an all time high, which has led many people to depend on artificial vanillin. But vanilla lovers will tell you—nothing compares to the real thing!
If you are one of the few people who doesn’t have a jar of vanilla extract in your cupboard, or you find yourself without, here are a few alternatives for the real thing.
1. Real Vanilla Bean
Possibly the only thing better than real vanilla extract is a real vanilla bean in its unprocessed, whole form.
Vanilla beans can be found in specialty shops and should be stored in an air-tight, sealed container to maintain freshness. You can test their freshness by feeling the vanilla bean—it should be flexible and have an oily coating.
You can then use the tip of a sharp knife to split the vanilla bean down the center, and add the pulp found inside to anything you are baking for a remarkable and intense vanilla flavor. This will also add the signature flecks of vanilla pod seeds throughout your recipe, which will tell everyone that you are using real vanilla… What a treat!
One vanilla bean pod yields quite a bit of vanilla, and you only require a small amount to get the same flavor as you would from vanilla extract. Like all the best, most pure ingredients, a little goes a long way!
2. Vanilla Bean Paste
The next best thing to real vanilla bean is vanilla bean paste, which tends to be slightly less processed and is often left with the seeds intact, as in not strained out. Vanilla bean paste can be quite expensive as it only contains vanilla bean and alcohol and, depending on the brand, possibly water.
Take care with storing vanilla bean paste to make sure it is always closed tightly so that it doesn’t dry out and none of the goodness evaporates. Store in a dark container and use sparingly! You will only need 1 tsp of real vanilla bean paste for every 1 tbsp of vanilla extract as it is much more potent and pure.
3. Vanilla Powder
This product is not as often found in regular stores, but it is very popular with professional bakers because, unlike extract, vanilla powder is pure white and will not discolor your recipes. Vanilla powder is, however, highly processed and does not contain very much real vanilla if any.
Also, it evaporates at high temperatures, so your remaining product may be lacking the intense vanilla flavor that you get from some of the others on this list or any real vanilla product. If you’re baking in large quantities, however, vanilla powder is a good alternative because it is inexpensive and easy to store.
4. Other Extracts
If you don’t have vanilla, you can try using any other extract you have in your cupboard to up the flavor of your baked goods. You could use almond, rum, maple, or lemon extract and although each will achieve a different result, extracts like almond are fairly neutral and will lend good flavor to your recipe, just as vanilla would.
One thing to keep in mind is that many people have nut allergies, so it is important to let them know if you switch to almond, but otherwise, any extract you have in your pantry will suffice for adding flavor if you don’t have access to vanilla.
5. Vanilla Flavoured Syrups or Liquor
The primary ingredient in high-end syrups or liquors could be vanilla, so these will make a good alternative in specific recipes. For example, a vanilla flavored vodka has a very high quantity of vanilla notes and can be used to replace vanilla extract.
You can also use high end coffee syrups that may or may not contain vanilla—these will be super sweet and highly flavored, so they can be used as a reliable replacement for extract and bump up the flavor of whatever you’re cooking!
Although honey is not vanilla flavored, both of these products do come from flowering plants, and both have complex floral and sweet notes. Depending on your recipe, adding a spoon or two of honey will certainly add a depth of flavor that you will be looking to achieve with vanilla.
This will not be likely if your recipe contains a lot of spices or chocolate, but for bland recipes, a spoon of honey will add a subtle, complex floral note, and therefore honey makes a good replacement for vanilla extract.
7. Vanilla Sugar
In Europe, it is common to use vanilla sugar in place of regular sugar and omit the extract entirely. And the good news is, if you have vanilla bean pods, you can start making your own vanilla sugar right now! Simply add any discarded pods to a container of sugar, and shake it every few days.
The oils release into the sugar, flavoring it with deep, vanilla notes. After a week or so, remove the pods and store the sugar in an airtight container until you’re ready to use it. This sugar is especially good when added to coffee or espresso, but is also good to dust baked goods such as cookies or doughnuts and is great to have on hand! You can also buy vanilla sugar in specialty shops.
Vanilla is one of the most popular spices in the world, and it’s easy to see why. Its complex, deep, rich, floral, buttery notes improve the flavor of just about anything. It is also a common ingredient in scented housewares such as candles, bath products, soaps, and more. Vanilla is also added to teas and coffee, milks, and even cheeses. A little vanilla goes a long way, and it is always best to work with the real stuff!