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The Best Vanilla Extract Substitutes

From vanilla bean and paste to more creative options like almond extract and maple syrup, I’m sharing the best vanilla extract substitutes for every situation.

Although used in small amounts, vanilla extract is quite impactful. It adds a sweet, warm, fragrant touch to various recipes, from cookies and cakes to custards and ice creams. The extract enhances the flavor of ingredients like butter, sugar, and milk, plus it takes the edge off the smell of raw eggs, which is why it’s in chocolate mousse, tiramisu, and other desserts that use uncooked eggs.

Despite being a staple, there may come a time when you find yourself without vanilla extract in your pantry. Fortunately, several substitutes can save the day (and save you a trip to the store), so let’s explore some of the best vanilla extract substitutes.

Best Vanilla Extract Substitutes

Vanilla Bean

Realistically, if you don’t have vanilla extract, you probably don’t have vanilla bean pods lying around, but in the rare case that you do, use them! They are one of the best vanilla extract substitutes. In fact, they’re even better. As you know, vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol and water, so if you have the essential part, you’re good to go. To use a vanilla bean, cut down the length of the pod with a sharp knife, then use the blade to scrape out the seeds. Half a vanilla bean replaces 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Also, do not dispose of the empty pods. They can be used in numerous infusions since they are so potent.

Vanilla Bean Paste

Vanilla bean paste comes in second on the list of best vanilla extract substitutes because it is very similar to extract. The main difference in taste is that vanilla bean paste is more concentrated in flavor. The paste consists of vanilla bean, vanilla extract, sugar, and other ingredients like pectin and carrageenan, which help achieve the desired consistency. Vanilla bean paste offers a rich, bold vanilla flavor and is a regular purchase for those who bake frequently; therefore, the chance of having some on hand is pretty high. Substitute 1 teaspoon of vanilla paste for every teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Imitation Vanilla

We’ve all purchased a bottle or two in our lifetime. Despite the ever-present emphasis on using REAL vanilla extract in cookbooks, food blogs, and instructional baking videos, imitation vanilla does have its allure. To start, it is much cheaper than vanilla extract. Furthermore, it’s available in larger quantities, and some excellent imitation vanillas are out there. Imitation vanilla is made with vanillin, after all.

For those unfamiliar, vanillin is the primary flavor component of vanilla. Generally, imitations have higher vanillin levels than extracts, so it has a more robust vanilla flavor. Unfortunately, the vanilla flavor lacks complexity, which isn’t an issue in most cases. To compensate for the lack of complexity, replace 1 teaspoon of extract with 2 teaspoons of imitation vanilla.

Maple Syrup

Real maple syrup is another of the best vanilla extract substitutes because the syrup’s scent and subtle sweetness are reminiscent of vanilla. Although the flavor differs, maple syrup is delicious. There’s something about the rich sweetness with caramel undertones that can enhance specific dessert recipes beautifully. Use an equal amount of maple syrup – the replacement ratio is 1:1. Remember, it will add a distinct maple flavor and sweetness.

Vanilla-Flavored Milk

This option is fantastic for recipes that require a fair amount of milk. The substitution will impart vanilla flavor throughout the dessert or baked goods. In most cases, the vanilla will be more subtle, but this will vary depending on the selected milk brand. Choose milk flavored with real vanilla bean or extract for the best result. Otherwise, the vanilla flavor may come off as unpleasantly artificial. If you choose this substitute, use as much milk as your recipe requires. This swap works particularly well in cakes and cookies.

Almond Extract

With almond extract, you have the same product with a different flavor. Like vanilla extract, almond extract adds something special to recipes and does an excellent job of removing any egginess. The replacement ratio is 1:1.

Citrus Zest

Citrus zest also made the list of best vanilla extract substitutes because zests are delicious, versatile flavorings. When you want to add a vibrant and refreshing twist to your recipes, citrus zest can be an excellent substitute for vanilla extract. Like extract, the zest of citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes adds flavor and fragrance. When replacing vanilla extract with zest, stick with a 1:1 replacement ratio.

Cinnamon

When you don’t have vanilla extract, head to your spice cabinet and grab the cinnamon. Like vanilla extract, the sweet aromatic spice adds a lovely flavor and aroma to food. Just remember that cinnamon has a robust, more distinguishable flavor than vanilla, meaning you want to use ¼ to ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon to replace each teaspoon of vanilla extract.

How to Make Vanilla Extract

If you’re tired of paying far too much for 1-2 ounce bottles of vanilla extract (the bottles are gone before you know it), make a larger bottle or two at home so you never run out. Vanilla beans need time to work their magic, so you will likely put one or more of the replacements mentioned to use before the homemade stuff is ready, but you have to start somewhere, right? To make vanilla extract, you will need the following:

  • ½ ounce vanilla beans
  • 8 fluid ounces vodka, 80 proof
  • Sharp knife
  • One (8-ounce) glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid
  • Funnel (optional but helpful)

Then, once you have your ingredients gathered:

  1. Slit each vanilla bean open to reveal the seeds. There is no need to split the bean in half entirely.
  2. Place the beans in the bottle or jar.
  3. Pour the vodka over the top of the beans. You want them fully submerged, so depending on the jar/bottle selected, you may need more vodka. A funnel makes this step easier when using a bottle.
  4. Close the bottle or jar and shake a few times, then store the bottle in a cool, dark place away from sunlight. It will be ready in 2 months, but extending that time to 6 months will yield an even better, more potent extract.

Vanilla extract will last several years, so make as much as you like.

Now you know the best vanilla extract substitutes, which is your favorite? While vanilla extract is a staple ingredient, the replacements mentioned can elevate your recipes and add unique flavors and aromas. Whether you prefer natural alternatives or are open to exploring others, there’s a substitute to suit your preferences.

Check out these other great substitutes!

Monique McArthur
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