March 19

8 Vanilla Extract Substitutes – Baking, Frosting and Chocolate Recipes

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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A touch of vanilla extract accompanies nearly every baked treat and dessert recipe in the Western world, and with good reason. Studies show that people associate vanilla with comfort, home, and well-being, but it is also recognized as an aphrodisiac!

A little bit of vanilla extract goes a long way, but a recipe can seem hollow and unfinished without it. Below, you’ll find a number of vanilla extract substitutes that can lend the same comforting, delicate touch.

Please leave a note at the bottom of the page if you have any questions or comments.

Enjoy!

What is Vanilla Extract?


what-is-vanilla-extract

Vanilla beans are the fruit of a tropical orchid that is native to South American and the Caribbean. Recently, its cultivation has extended to Asia, Africa, Indonesia, and (famously) Madagascar.

The pods or “beans” are blanched immediately after harvest before undergoing a curing process for up to six months while they develop their full, robust flavor.

Eventually, dried beans soak in ethyl alcohol to extract flavor-carrying compounds. The resulting extract is a viscous amber-colored liquid that may be thinned with up to 65% water.

Contrary to its reputation as “boring” or “simple,” vanilla has a powerfully complex flavor characterized principally by a molecule called vanillin

Some extracts also contain sugar, corn syrup, stabilizers, or coloring agents. 

However, many other aromatic compounds contribute to its subtle perfume. While the flavor of vanilla is very hard to mimic, it is possible to find substitutes that also contain some vanillin. Others simply lend the same sense of complexity and sweetness. 

Vanilla Extract Substitutes

1) Almond Extract


Almond extract is usually not made from almonds!  Instead, it is composed of benzaldehyde, a compound extracted from almonds or from the seeds of other members of the Prunus genus (cherry, peach, apricot, plum, etc). It has a creamy, sweet profile and is quite pungent.

Similarities: Almond extract is highly aromatic and has a more intense flavor than vanilla. However, both extracts give an impression of warmth, depth, and sweetness.

Suggested Conversion: Use half the amount your recipe demands because it has such a robust flavor.

Flavor Notes: Sweet cherries, creamy, syrupy 

Suggested Dishes: Baked goods, whipped desserts, and toppings

2) Maple syrup


The boiled sap of the sugar maple, red maple, or black maple tree, this viscous syrup comes in various quality grades and a spectrum of colors. As the color deepens, its flavor also grows more potent.

Similarities: Most maple syrups have a background taste reminiscent of vanilla--they also have nutty, toasted flavors and add sweetness to a recipe.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Caramel, toast, vanilla, nutty, sweet

Suggested Dishes: Baked goods, especially cookies; whipped desserts and glazes

3) Bourbon


A corn-based whiskey made in Kentucky, bourbon is aged until it shows a dark amber color. Unlike other whiskeys, it must be at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Similarities: Wood naturally contains vanillin (the same compound that gives vanilla its flavor!), and this leeches into the bourbon as it goes through the barrel-aging process.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Caramel, vanilla, oak, toast

Suggested Dishes: Excellent for baking, but will also work in puddings and glazes

4) Dark Rum


Rum is distilled from sugarcane or molasses, and it comes in light (either young or filtered) or dark (aged and unfiltered) versions. Often associated with Caribbean drinks, it is very sweet and flavorful.

Similarities: Dark rum has strong notes of vanilla pulled from the wood during barrel aging. Some rums have additional caramel coloring added, which may confer more intense vanilla and caramel flavors. A brand like Meyers Dark is a particularly good choice as a substitute for vanilla extract.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Toasted sugar, caramel, vanilla, flan

Suggested Dishes: Glazes, frostings, baked goods

5) Vanilla powder


You may have seen vanilla powder as a topping at your local coffee shop. Made from dried vanilla extract, it is mixed with cornstarch to keep it powdery.

Similarities: In terms of flavor, vanilla powder is an excellent match. However, since it is powdered instead of liquid, it doesn’t mix into liquids well. To use, mix it with other powdered ingredients in your dish.

Suggested Conversion: Use it in at least a 1:1 ratio with the vanilla extract in your recipe--the flavor is slightly weaker, so you may choose to add slightly more. If your vanilla powder is old, you may use up to 50% extra.

Flavor Notes: Vanilla, milky

Suggested Dishes: Baked goods or any recipe that contains other powders (such as flour, cocoa, or even sugar)

6) Vanilla bean paste or whole vanilla bean


In some places, it is possible to purchase whole vanilla beans. To use them, split them lengthwise and scrape out the fragrant seeds. Vanilla bean paste is a rich, dark brown paste made from the seed scrapings of many beans combined with vanilla extract until the consistency reaches something like maple syrup.

Similarities: Both of these come from vanilla, and so they are a perfect flavor match for vanilla extract. However, the consistency is very thick, so vanilla bean scrapings or paste are not ideal for baking because they do not mix easily. Use them when the recipe will be subjected to vigorous or prolonged mixing. 

Suggested Conversion: Seeds scraped from 1 whole vanilla bean = 1 tsp vanilla bean paste = 1 tsp vanilla extract

Flavor Notes: Dependent upon variety; vanilla, floral, rum

Suggested Dishes: Whipped desserts, glazes, frosting, ice cream

7) Vanilla milk or milk substitute


Many milk substitutes come in plain and flavored varieties. Vanilla milk (or almond milk, cashew milk, etc.) is usually gently sweetened and contains vanilla flavoring.

Similarities: If you use this product as the liquid component of your cookies, cake, or bread, it will confer a gentle vanilla flavor.

Suggested Conversion: Replace the liquid in your recipe with vanilla milk.

Flavor Notes: Vanilla, plus dairy, nutty, or vegetal notes depending on the type of milk or milk substitutes

Suggested Dishes: Baked goods or any recipe containing milk, water, or other liquids which you can replace with vanilla milk

8) Espresso Powder


Espresso powder is prepared from coffee beans that have been brewed and then ground to a very fine powder. It has an extremely concentrated coffee flavor. While it is similar to instant coffee, its taste is more substantial, making it useful for cooking and baking.

Similarities: Espresso powder (or instant coffee, in a pinch) is an ideal choice when you need a vanilla extract substitute in recipes containing chocolate. Chocolate desserts often call for vanilla to enhance the backbone and depth of the chocolate. Espresso powder will accomplish the same goal.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio if using espresso powder; if using instant coffee, you may need up to a 2:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Toasted, rich, earthy

Suggested Dishes: Any dessert or recipe containing chocolate or cocoa

Frequently Asked Questions


What's a good vanilla substitute in baking?

Almond extract is an ideal substitute for baking applications if you have it. If not, rum or bourbon works well. If necessary, substitute the liquid in your recipe for vanilla-flavored milk or milk substitute. Finally, vanilla powder can be a successful substitute if you mix it with the dry ingredients before adding the liquids.

Concluding


There is simply no alternative to the profoundly recognizable flavor and aroma of vanilla. However, the list above discusses several options that can save you if your bottle of vanilla extract has dwindled to nothing! Check out our recommendations and get baking.

If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to leave a note below 🙂

Cheers!

Caitlin


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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