Ultimate Vanilla Extract Alternatives: 5 Game-Changing Ingredients!

Whether you’ve stopped in the middle of making a batter and realized you’re out of the vanilla extract so many recipes call for or simply found the bottles of the prized amber liquid on grocery store shelves too expensive, a substitution is called for from time to time. But what to do when those times arise?

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is used to flavor all sorts of things, mainly baked goods and other desserts, made by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of neutral alcohol and water. This steeping process imparts the flavor and color of the beans before they’re strained out, allowing the beautiful flavor of vanilla to be incorporated into all of your favorite dishes.

Extracts made with the synthetic compound vanillin are called “imitation vanilla.” The difference in taste is quite large, so shelling out a bit extra for the real stuff is a built-in flavor pay-off. In addition, adding pure extract has the unique ability to enhance other flavors in the recipe.

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Vanilla Extract Substitutes

Vanilla extract is, first and foremost, a flavoring agent. It isn’t as crucial an ingredient to the precise art of baking as, say, baking soda, and therefore hard to replicate or replace. In essence, its absence will not ruin a recipe. So, choosing a substitute simply comes down to personal preference. Here are five substitution routes you can take.

A Different Extract

Almond extract is a natural go-to to replace vanilla, being another popular extract in the pantry. Its nutty notes will surely complement most anything vanilla would have, however, it is notably stronger in flavor than its mellower counterpart, so it’s best to cut the amount needed in the recipe by about half. The same goes for other extracts like coconut, hazelnut, or rum.

Liquor or Liqueur

Though negligible once all is said and done, there is alcohol in vanilla extract as it is used in its creation. Naturally, a simple solution for its absence then is another alcohol, like bourbon, brandy, or even rum. A vanilla-essenced and only slightly bitter amaro like Dimmi di Milano would also be a delicious option, or a vanilla liqueur like Liquor 43. Though these spirits are higher in alcohol content than vanilla extract, if what you’re using it in spends time in an oven rather than, say, a whipped cream, the amount should all-but cook out of the recipe

Maple Syrup

Pure maple syrup is a fine choice to exchange with vanilla, as its flavor is similarly delicate. An equal swap of these two is likely to go unnoticed.

Espresso Powder

Espresso powder or instant coffee would work well, dropped in by the pinch or dissolved into some hot water, cooled, and then drizzled into your recipe like you would the liquid extract. Either option would change the flavor of the final product a bit, although not by much if what you’re making is chocolate.

Warming Spices

Another flavor-changing option would be to simply trade the vanilla for a warming spice like cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom. Of course, you will not typically want to swap one-for-one. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon vanilla, consider adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of spice in it’s place.