These days it can feel like every sweet baking recipe calls for a little bit of vanilla extract. It can be hard to remember that this now-common seasoning used to be one of the rarest and most expensive flavors to get.
But then you see the price for a bottle of pure vanilla extract at the store and remember.
For a flavor many of us consider the default sweet, it's easy to take vanilla extract for granted. Until you don't have any or need to make a substitution.
Here’s what you need to know about vanilla extract, why it’s so expensive, why you might want to choose a substitute for the flavor, and good substitutes you can try in different recipes.
What Is Vanilla Extract?
Vanilla extract is a highly potent and flavorful liquid that's made by soaking vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol and water. It can also be made at home with any high-proof liquor, though the taste of homemade vanilla extract is often noticeably different from the store-bought kind.
The reason for that is often potency and how long you let the extract age. To be called pure vanilla extract, manufacturers have to ensure that the extract contains both 35 percent alcohol content and 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter.
The extract needs time to gain flavor, and the longer the alcohol sits on the vanilla beans, the stronger the resulting extract is likely to be.
Why Is Vanilla Extract So Expensive?
There are a few reasons that vanilla extract is expensive, and annual changes in weather and climate can have a big impact on the average prices of vanilla in any given year. Vanilla might be the single most weather-variable agricultural product in the world, and the vanilla plant only thrives in a few very limited parts of the world which contributes to its scarcity.
Part of that is because of the nature of the plant. Vanilla is actually an orchid, and only one type of orchid in the whole world produces vanilla.
If keeping a crop of orchids alive weren’t already hard enough, there’s more. Vanilla orchids need to be hand-pollinated to ensure that they produce vanilla. The flowers only bloom for a very short time, so all of that work needs to be done in just a few days.
The work doesn’t stop there.
Once the flowers produce the vanilla beans, they aren’t ready to be consumed. Harvesting is followed by curing and drying the crop, enhancing the flavor and making it easier to transport.
It takes a full year to produce vanilla. It’s actually more labor-intensive than saffron, and also the single most expensive agricultural product by weight.
Why Would You Want To Substitute Vanilla Extract?
There are a lot of reasons to substitute vanilla. The most common is because of the price of real vanilla, and the fact that more affordable imitations only get so close to the real thing.
You might also want to substitute vanilla to get a slightly different flavor, or because you’re cooking for someone who doesn’t like the flavor or is allergic.
Lastly, vanilla shortages happen, and you might not be able to get high-quality vanilla extract all the time, so having a substitute on hand is helpful.
Looking for more dessert inspiration? These 25 Italian Desserts will satisfy your sweet tooth and your craving for new desserts.
The Best Substitutes For Vanilla Extract In Your Baking
Here are some of the best substitutes for vanilla extract you can use in your baking. Even though vanilla is a very common flavor that gets added to a lot of different things, it’s still important to think about the other flavors in your baking and what they do.
First, let’s start with some of the easiest substitutions you can make. Vanilla extract is a common ingredient because you can get a really intense flavor without having to change enough extract to change the density or texture of your bake.
Vanilla sugar is infused with vanilla flavor the same way extract is. If you have vanilla beans you can even make this substitute at home. Just stick a vanilla bean in some sugar. Put it in a container you can close and shake around occasionally, and leave it. Ideally, you should leave for a couple of weeks before using.
That will infuse the sugar with vanilla flavor, and it will add vanilla flavor to your bake.
Another alternative, especially during a vanilla shortage is to look for vanilla extract’s lesser-known cousin, vanilla powder. Powder works really well when you are looking for vanilla during a shortage because this version of vanilla flavoring isn’t as well known.
However, that does also mean that not all stores will carry vanilla powder. Specialty baking stores are most likely to have it, but grocery stores with larger baking sections might also have vanilla powder available.
Vanilla paste, often made from the ground up and combined with the inner portion of vanilla beans is another good flavoring option. Just remember, like using fresh vanilla, you can easily overpower the other flavors in your bake by adding too much vanilla paste, and it’s easier to do than adding too much vanilla extract or powder.
That said, this is another potent source of vanilla flavor that is less likely to go completely out of stock during a shortage.
Maple syrup is the first substitute that isn’t another source of vanilla flavor. Maple isn’t going to be a suitable option for all baking, but it can provide another sweet and creamy flavor note to the background of your baking.
Just as a note with this one, maple syrup works best in recipes where you can replace some of the sugar or other sweetener with the syrup. That will increase the flavor, but you might need to experiment a bit to get the right balance of maple syrup and regular sugar for any given bake.
Almond extract is a great go-to replacement for vanilla extract. You can replace the vanilla 1:1 with almond extract, and it’s another similarly sweet and nutty flavor that’s pretty similar. If you love amaretto, you already love the flavor of almond extract.
However, this extract can be a bit more powerful in some foods. It particularly comes through in breads, quick breads, cakes, and cookies. So you might end up with almond cookies instead of vanilla cookies.
Honey works a lot like maple syrup as a vanilla substitute. The flavor of honey is distinct and pleasant, though the exact flavors can vary a ton depending on the honey you’re using.
As a tip, raw, minimally filtered honey tends to have the most variability in flavor, texture, and sweetness.
Filtered pasteurized honey tends to have less individuality and a more uniform flavor. Both work as vanilla extract substitutes, but it’s important to taste your honey and figure out how it fits in your recipe.
Honey often works particularly well in less traditional Western desserts. Not sure what to try it with? Let these 26 Asian desserts give you inspiration!
Bourbon, Brandy, Or Rum
Bourbon brandy and rum are similarly common baking flavorings, and using the liquor directly in your bake can add a lot of flavor, richness, and lightness all at the same time.
Remember that adding enough alcohol to provide a significant flavor can mean altering your recipe slightly to account for the extra moisture, and how much and how quickly the alcohol will boil off.
Like bourbon, brandy, and rum, you can use basically any vanilla-flavored liqueur as a flavoring in your baking. You’ll need a little more of the liqueur than the extract, but some people even prefer this flavoring method over traditional vanilla extract.
Vanilla Flavored Milks
If you’re in a pinch, don’t have another vanilla extract substitute, and absolutely have to have a vanilla flavor, vanilla-flavored milks are a good option. The most common vanilla-flavored milks are plant-based milks, which can be a stand-in for other liquid ingredients in your bake. Milk for milk is the best substitution you can make, but you can also replace the water in some recipes for plant-based vanilla milks, or do a mix of milk and water.
Coffee is another great vanilla substitute when you can't find a vanilla source, but it's pretty specific to chocolate-flavored bakes. In chocolate baking the vanilla that is often added is there to provide complexity and some sweetness to counter the bitter chocolate flavor.
Coffee works in a similar way, adding complexity and depth, and it also fools your brain into thinking the chocolate tastes sweeter and richer.
Sweet Herbs And Spices
When you’re looking for a delicious vanilla substitute to add to baked goods, sweet herbs and spices are an often overlooked option.
Herbal flavors like lavender and chamomile work well on their own and can provide that complexity when you’re missing vanilla. Or cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and allspice all also provide fun and warm flavors on their own.
A small amount of these flavors goes a long way, especially in any batter or dough that sits for an hour or longer before baking. Herb and spice flavors slowly infuse batters and doughs over time, so you can slightly reduce how much of the flavoring ingredient you use when it’s going to sit longer.
Imitation vanilla might seem like a silly replacement, but it is a valid vanilla extract substitute. The trick is that imitation vanilla really works best as a companion flavor rather than a standalone. You can use it in chocolate baking, as a backing for chamomile and other herbal or spice flavors, and as a support for liqueur or fruit flavors. But imitation vanilla is flat and doesn’t taste quite right in vanilla-flavored things. So if this is all you have, look for ways to add another flavor to work with the imitation extract.
Hazelnut is such a common companion flavor for chocolate and coffee, and sometimes both that we often forget that hazelnut is an incredible flavor all on its own!
In fact, hazelnut is a warm and nutty flavor, somewhat similar to vanilla, making it a great substitute for vanilla.
Coconut extract is another great option. It works particularly well in creamy soft dishes since it brings so much creaminess and fatty but light and sweet flavor to the bake.
Coconut is one of the few extracts you might not want to replace 1:1. Depending on the recipe, you might want to use less extract for a more subtle natural flavor, or more extract for a creamier and bolder coconut flavor.