The seed pod of the vanilla orchid produces one of the world’s most popular spices. Harvesting vanilla is a long and complicated process though, relying on arduous labour and very specific weather conditions. Global shortages are common and result in wildly fluctuating prices (have you seen the price of it lately?).
Consequently, much vanilla is used to make less perishable extracts when prices are low, and cheap imitations known as 'vanilla flavour' or 'vanilla essence' are very common. As we’ll see, there are other ways of achieving similar results if you don’t have any real vanilla or vanilla extract in the house – or maybe you’re just trying to avoid eating anything produced by a beaver’s anal glands.
Your best option for a vanilla extract substitute depends on what you need it for and, of course, what you have available. Here are some great alternatives to use in place of vanilla extract, including some tips on how to use them. (Scroll to the bottom for examples of recipes these substitutes work well in.)
1. Vanilla Powder
Vanilla powder can seem expensive, but a small packet will last a long time. You don’t need to use very much for a strong flavour, which makes it more cost-effective than using vanilla pods or extract. This is an underrated ingredient that demands a place in your baking cupboard.
2. Vanilla Milk
If your recipe calls for a liquid like milk or water, try a vanilla-infused or flavoured milk instead. (Infused is generally better.) Plant-based alternatives like vanilla-infused soy milks work just as well, which is great news because they’re generally easier to find than dairy versions.
3. Vanilla Sugar
Vanilla sugar is a great alternative to vanilla extract and just as easy to find in supermarkets. The only problem is adapting your recipe accordingly. You’ll need to use triple the amount of vanilla sugar to vanilla extract, as its vanilla flavour is more subtle. Of course, you’ll also need to reduce the called for amount of normal sugar accordingly.
4. Vanilla Syrup
Vanilla syrup – as in the type you might use to flavour coffee or ice cream – is effectively just condensed liquid vanilla sugar. You will need to use it slightly differently though, as it isn’t just a sugar but also a wet ingredient. That means you can’t simply reduce the amount of sugar to compensate if the balance of wet and dry ingredients is crucial (i.e. cakes). The good news is that you should only use it sparingly anyway, as it’s far more concentrated than vanilla sugar, so it should work just fine for gooey recipes like brownies.
5. Vanilla Liqueur
If your recipe calls for booze as well as vanilla extract, just substitute a small amount of the alcohol required with vanilla-flavoured liqueur for the best of both worlds. How much you should use depends on the strength of the booze and the intensity of its vanilla flavour.
While we’re on the subject of alcohol, bourbon has a smokey flavour similar to vanilla that works well in chocolate cakes, pecan pie, gingerbread, and pretty much anything with molasses. If you find yourself in the same situation as above but lacking vanilla liqueur, bourbon is a great alternative.
OK, so one more alcohol. Brandy is similar to bourbon but much sweeter and works well with fruitier bakes like banana bread. However, it excels as a vanilla substitute in frosting.
8. Almond Extract
Almond hardly tastes the same as vanilla, of course, but it can have a similar effect on baking, adding balance to your flavour profile with just a hint of earthy sweetness. Almond extract has an even stronger flavour than vanilla extract though, so be sure to use less (roughly half).
9. Maple Syrup
Again, maple syrup offers a different flavour to vanilla but, when your recipe only calls for a hint of vanilla, it can provide balance and that slight hint of smoke without distracting from the core flavours. Substitute equal parts maple syrup to vanilla extract.
Same as above. If you prefer the flavour of honey to maple syrup, you can use it in the exact same way.
11. Other spices
This one might require a lot of confidence and/or experimentation, but given that vanilla extract is usually required to add just a hint of something different, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve a similar effect with other spices. Depending on the recipe, a small pinch of cinnamon, clove or nutmeg can go a long way.
12. Vanilla ice cream
Let’s face it, a lot of your bakes would taste a lot better with ice cream anyway. If that’s the case, just forget about the extract and serve up the end product with some quality vanilla ice cream instead.
Quick recipes with vanilla extract substitutes
If you want to become a more rounded baker and learn how to use the vanilla extract alternative listed above, here are a few easy recipes you can practice with.
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