What is the difference between vanilla extract and vanilla flavoring? The basic difference is that one is made with real vanilla, while the other is often a combination of artificial flavorings which may or may not include some real vanilla. When should you consider using vanilla extract and when should you use vanilla flavoring? We explore them both below.
There are multiple varieties of vanilla bean. You can typically find one of the following in use in your favorite extracts:
- Madagascar vanilla
- Mexican vanilla
- Indonesian vanilla
- Tahitian vanilla
- Ugandan vanilla
There are variations, flavor wise, among these varieties but at the heart they all taste like vanilla.
What Is Pure Vanilla Extract?
Basically, pure vanilla is an extract ideally made from nothing but vanilla beans, alcohol, and water. Vanilla pods are macerated and percolated in an ethanol and water solution to create the substance referred to as vanilla extract. If you want “pure vanilla” that has not been extracted using alcohol, you’ll need to toast and grind your own vanilla beans.
Vanilla bean powder is actually stronger than vanilla extract; that is why some sources recommend using one vanilla bean as a substitute for one teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Vanilla Extract Shelf Life & Storage: Store your vanilla extract in a cool, dark place (like your spice cabinet). Do not store it in the refrigerator or freezer. When stored properly, vanilla extract doesn’t ever officially expire, but it is recommended that you use it within five to ten years. The flavor or potency may decrease over time.
Vanilla flavoring is typically made from artificial ingredients and can leave an aftertaste that is not as pleasant as real vanilla. Many products are made with vanilla flavoring because it is cheaper to use. Vanilla essence is one variation of this but is essentially the same thing–it’s a replacement for vanilla extract.
Vanilla Flavoring Shelf Life & Storage: Because vanilla flavoring is made from artificial ingredients, each brand may vary. You’ll want to look at the container for specific advice for storage and expiration of vanilla flavoring.
In some cases this may simply be another way of saying “vanilla flavoring”. Imitation vanilla may go an extra step beyond in the “imitation” department by using a type of vanillin that is artificially created rather than extracted naturally from vanilla beans or some other source.
This is one of the more unusual options for replacing vanilla extract; it calls for a blend of vanilla powder and vanilla extract ground up and mixed into a powder. You can use this paste in a variety of ways but the flavors are much stronger and you may need some experimenting time to sort out the best way and the most volume to use.
Vanilla Paste Shelf Life & Storage: Like extract, vanilla paste should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. It does not need to be refrigerated or frozen and has a shelf life of approximately three years.
Vanilla sugar is as simple as the name implies; it’s ground cane sugar with ground up vanilla beans added. There are coarse varieties and fine varieties you can use depending on the recipe.
Some vanilla sugars may have specific instructions for using vanilla sugar as a substitution for vanilla extract.
Vanilla Sugar Storage & Shelf Life: Like other sugars, vanilla sugar can be stored in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Because each product may vary, refer to the package for expiration information.
A true vanilla extract will be about 35% alcohol. This ratio helps the flavor extraction and helps to preserve the extract.
The major difference between extract and vanilla flavoring or artificial vanilla aside from the artificial ingredients is the alcohol. There are reasons some need to know the alcohol content of vanilla extract; those who are doing food prep for kids might worry about passing alcohol to children, and there are those who must avoid alcohol due to medications or other concerns. In both cases you’ll want to know the alcohol content of your vanilla extract.
Some sources note that vanilla extract has more alcohol content than vanilla flavoring, which may or may not have alcohol depending on the brand. If it is not 35% alcohol or better, it may not legally qualify as an “extract” according to FDA rules as reported by the Iowa State University Extension Service official site.
That depends on what you mean by “harm”. The alcohol in vanilla extract is the same type you will find in beer, wine, mixed drinks, etc. Ethyl alcohol is used as a suspension for a variety of extracts and tinctures, and it is not considered harmful as an ingredient in cooking.
However, if you are worried about the 35% alcohol content in a vanilla extract there are two things to be aware of. You can experience the same effects from drinking vanilla extract as you can drinking a shot of whiskey if you consume vanilla extract in sufficient quantities without cooking it.
Heating vanilla extract above 173 degrees Fahrenheit cooks off the alcohol. Water boils at 212 Fahrenheit, so it’s clear that you don’t need a lot of heat, you just need it to be above 173, and for most baked goods that’s no problem. Typical cookie, cake, brownie, and biscuit recipes call for prolonged cooking temperatures at 350 Fahrenheit or better.
If you worry about alcohol in your vanilla extract, keep in mind the above advice about when alcohol burns off during the cooking or baking process. If you are making a recipe that requires NO cooking or baking at or above the temps listed above and you worry about alcohol content, use vanilla flavoring instead of vanilla extract.
If you are making dishes that require a strong vanilla flavor but you are not concerned with the alcohol content, it’s fine to use vanilla extract instead of imitation vanilla; you will get a much better result. But for no-cook recipes it’s best to avoid extract and use a ground vanilla bean instead.
Some sources report vanilla losing its flavor after baking or cooking at high temperatures. If you notice diminished flavor in recipes calling for temperatures at 350 or higher, you may wish to experiment with vanilla flavoring instead just to compare the two outcomes.
Multiple sources agree that vanilla extract is a complex thing indeed as there are some 200 flavor compounds in the vanilla bean. It’s just not possible to synthesize something that complicated without losing a lot along the way in terms of flavor. It’s possible to synthesize something close to real vanilla, but vanilla flavoring typically lacks the punch and the immediacy of flavor.
If you are a purist, many “alcohol-free” vanilla options may disappoint as they still often contain reduced alcohol but not ZERO alcohol. But there are other things you can use to replace vanilla extract including maple syrup, which many feel has a similar flavor when mixed into a recipe with other ingredients. Vanilla milk is another option–soy or almond milk that has vanilla flavorings.
Check the label to make sure you aren’t buying a variety that uses vanilla extract (for the alcohol) but vanilla flavoring instead. Some sources even recommend using instant coffee as a replacement for vanilla extract. Ever made a batch of brownies using instant coffee? Those results may impress you.