Today, we will look at the best vanilla extract substitute options. I’ve created two comprehensive categories, one including vanilla-flavored alternatives that are ideal to use, and one that includes substitutes that work in a pinch.
By the end of this article, you will never have to panic about what to use instead of vanilla extract again. All of my alternatives are easy to use, and my guide will show you how to use them in any scenario.
What Is Vanilla Extract?
Vanilla is arguably one of the most used (if not the most used) flavoring extracts in the world. I use it in many recipes like my Vanilla-Chocolate Graham Cracker Cheesecake, this refreshing Mexican Rice Drink, or these cute Valentine’s Beignets.
While being incredibly popular, many people don’t know what vanilla extract is. It’s an important topic to cover because it will help you better understand what to use in place of vanilla extract and which options will work best.
So, first things first, what is vanilla extract made from?
This is a unique flavoring product made by infusing a solution of water and ethanol with fresh vanilla pods. This produces a thin syrupy liquid that has a naturally brown (or amber-like) color. It sometimes contains sweeteners, but to such an insignificant amount that it is barely noticeable.
This product has the purest vanilla flavor (in comparison to real vanilla beans) and is often quite pricey. It’s cheaper than vanilla beans, paste, and vanilla powder but more expensive than most vanilla flavorings, like essences.
You actually don’t need to use much of the vanilla extract. You will instantly notice this once we compare how it is used in relation to the other substitutes for vanilla extract.
Vanilla Extract Versus Vanilla Essence – What’s the Difference?
Now, the most obvious substitute for vanilla extract is vanilla essence. But most people don’t even realize that these two ingredients are very different products.
Vanilla essence is also commonly called artificial vanilla extract.
The organic vanilla extract originates from vanilla beans. The main flavoring compound is vanillin, but there are loads more that help gives the flavor a more rich and more complex profile.
Artificial vanilla extract (vanilla essence) is often made from by-products from the wood-pulp industry. It still contains that vanillin flavor compound, but an artificially produced one. This extract will also have a clear color, which is impossible if you make an extract from naturally brown vanilla beans.
Vanilla essence also often includes additional ingredients like propylene glycol, emulsifiers, and colorants.
So, which one is better? Hands down vanilla extract (pure extract). It has a much better flavor and will improve the overall quality (and value) of your dish. Trust me: you will notice the difference.
The Best Substitutes For Vanilla Extract
Okay, so while vanilla extract is the best option to use for recipes, it’s not always possible. It is the most accessible form of pure vanilla flavor but is becoming more sought after.
If you cannot find vanilla extract, what are the best vanilla extract substitutes?
I tried to include as many accessible options in this list as possible. Some are better in quality than others, some are easier to find or more affordable, and some are just desperate attempts to still include the flavor into your recipe. That being said, all of them work and can work well if you use them correctly.
So, let’s look at the best vanilla-flavored alternatives for vanilla extract.
1. Vanilla Paste (Or Vanilla Beans) – The Best Substitute For Extract
These are two different options, but I put them together for a couple of reasons.
The first is that they are both equally hard to find. It’s becoming easier every day, but they are still less common than any of the other options on today’s list.
The second is that they are more expensive than any other option on the list. You can usually only find frozen “fresh” vanilla beans because they are highly perishable and quite rare. The same goes for vanilla paste.
So if they are difficult to find and expensive, why are they on the top of the list?
It’s simple: they are the BEST alternatives because they have the purest form. They are used to make extracts!
Nothing beats the flavor of vanilla pods. And if you cannot find pods, you can use the paste, which is just a processed form of the pods. Try your local baking supply store or online retailers. You won’t always find these at a supermarket or grocery store.
If you do use any of these alternatives, a little goes a long way. The flavor is highly concentrated and you can use a 1/4 bean (or 1/4 teaspoon paste) for every 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.
2. Vanilla Essence
Next up, vanilla essence, or artificial vanilla extract. This option is arguably the easiest one to find today. You can even get it at a small grocery store or corner shop.
It is very affordable and comes in a variety of different sizes.
The only downside is of course that it is made from artificial flavorings. That doesn’t necessarily mean the vanilla flavor will be bad. But it’s like comparing the flavor of margarine to real butter – it’s just not the same and never will be.
To substitute vanilla extract with essence, you can use a 1:2 ratio. For every 1 teaspoon of extract, use 2 teaspoons of essence.
3. Vanilla Powder
Think of vanilla powder as the dried version of vanilla bean paste. It also has a very strong natural vanilla flavor but is difficult to find and comes at a higher price tag.
If you end up finding some, you can use a 2:1 ratio. For every teaspoon of extract, use 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla powder.
4. Vanilla-Flavored Sugar
This is a relatively new product and is literally what the name suggests: vanilla-infused granulated sugar. I have never seen vanilla powdered or caster sugar, so your options aren’t that broad.
If you cannot find any extract, substitute the regular granulated white sugar in your recipe with vanilla-flavored sugar instead.
5. Vanilla-Flavored Milk
As you have most likely seen, there are quite a few different options for vanilla-flavored milk and even cream. You can even find vanilla plant-based milk alternatives too!
This replacement for vanilla extract only works for recipes that use milk or a milk alternative.
Again, replace the unflavored milk with the vanilla milk for the best results.
6. Vanilla-Flavored Liqueur
Obviously, liqueur contains alcohol, so won’t work for recovering alcoholics or children.
That being said, when liqueur is heated (when cooked or baked), the alcohol is cooked off (evaporates), so cannot make you drunk. All that you are left with is flavored liquid.
For some people, that’s enough, but for others, it’s still a matter of “it’s alcohol.”
You can also reduce this liquid to make the flavors more concentrated.
You can use a 1:2 ratio when using reduced vanilla liqueur. Use 2 teaspoons of liqueur for every teaspoon of vanilla extract.
7. Vanilla Salt
And finally, an option that isn’t extremely popular yet but that will definitely work.
You can substitute the normal fine salt with vanilla-flavored salt instead. Don’t increase or decrease the original salt amount in the recipe. Remember, salt is a functional and flavoring ingredient.
Non-Vanilla Substitutes For Extract
What can you use instead of vanilla extract if you have nothing vanilla-flavored on hand?
A strange question but a scenario that I have found myself in numerous times!
Luckily, I have some easy alternatives that can work in a pinch.
1. Almond Extract
This extract is often used in conjunction with vanilla extract. So, even if you don’t have anything vanilla on hand, the final flavor of your product will create the illusion that there is still vanilla included.
Almond extract is also slightly sweetened and has a natural vanilla undertone.
Substitute the two in equal amounts. Don’t add too much almond extract or it may make the recipe bitter. It’s also an alternative that works best in baked goods.
Similar to almond extract, honey is organically associated with vanilla, so will trick the mind easily.
Instead of vanilla extract, use an equal amount of natural unflavored honey. You may need to thin it a little to incorporate it into the recipe more easily. Simply heat it for a couple of seconds.
3. Maple Syrup
This is simply an alternative to honey, which not many people keep on hand. It will work in the same way and is already naturally thin.
You can also use a one-to-one replacement. Don’t use imitation maple syrup. The pure options have a natural vanilla undertone.
4. Brandy Or Dark Rum
These don’t have any vanilla flavors but do mimic a slightly caramelized flavor that vanilla also has.
Again, if you are concerned about the alcohol, cook it before reducing it for the recipe.
You can use 2 teaspoons of brandy or rum instead of 1 teaspoon of extract.
5. Autumn Or Winter Spices
Because spices like cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and nutmeg are often used with vanilla, you can easily fool the pallet into thinking vanilla is included.
But it only works for sweeter products, especially baked goods.
This option will have to be experimented with. And keep in mind that it will completely change the flavor profile of the item.