Vanilla Extract: Everything You Need To Know

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Vanilla extract is an integral ingredient to many culinary dishes; however, most people do not truly understand it. To understand vanilla extract, we have to understand the basics of vanilla. So, where does vanilla extract come from? Vanilla comes in the form of a bean, but it isn’t the type of bean you have in mind.

What it is, is a fruit from the genus Vanilla. It comes from an orchid. Vanilla orchids generally grow in a small section of the world, with about 80% of the world’s supply coming from Madagascar. Vanilla is also grown in Mexico, Tahiti, and Indonesia.

What is Vanilla Extract Made Of?

Vanilla extract, especially one labeled as a pure on the label, is created by soaking vanilla beans in an alcoholic situation to remove all the flavor compounds of the beans. The Food and Drug Administration states that vanilla extract must have at least 35% alcohol to a minimum of 100 grams of vanilla in every liter.

Check the ingredients of your extract when shopping. They should only include alcohol, vanilla beans, and water. There should be no additives such as artificial flavors or sugar.

Why is Vanilla Extract So Expensive?

vanilla extract

Vanilla extract is expensive because the entire harvesting process is quite labor-intensive. Every step from pollination and harvest to curing (the process where the large green vanilla pods are transformed into thin black beans) is done by hand.

These reasons and the fact that demand is significantly greater than the supply make vanilla the second most expensive spice, next to saffron.

Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Paste

If you have a quick search online about vanilla, you will discover that there is vanilla extract and vanilla paste. The question is, how are they similar, and how are they different?

Vanilla extract

Vanilla extract is the most easily accessible and affordable type of vanilla. It resembles a dark amber liquid. It is also a lot cheaper than vanilla paste or vanilla beans. Some vanilla extracts can be directly created from entire beans, while others are made from the pods once the specks in the pods are removed. Then, the vanilla is macerated with alcohol and water, infusing the flavor into the liquid.

When buying extract, note that “pure” is on the label. Imitation extract isn’t as flavorful as a pure extract; it can also have a bitter aftertaste. Compared to the artificial flavor, the pure extract does cost more; however, it is worth the money.

When to use vanilla extract

You can use pure extract in a recipe that doesn’t make vanilla the dominant flavor. If vanilla paste is out of your price range, you can replace a teaspoon of vanilla paste with one teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Vanilla paste

Vanilla paste is a rich, thick paste made from the contents and seeds of the vanilla bean pod. Pure extract is mixed with vanilla bean powder to create vanilla bean paste. This mixture creates a thick consistency reminiscent of glue. It also provides a stronger flavor than the extract’s flavor.

Only a few brands make a vanilla paste, but it is worth the search. Vanilla paste offers a great alternative for those who want a rich vanilla flavor without preparing the seeds themselves.

When to use vanilla paste

You can select vanilla paste when you want a stronger flavor in your baking but don’t want to spend the money and time on whole vanilla beans. You can also use the vanilla paste to have vanilla flecks in your finished baked goods.

You should note that there are different concentrations of vanilla paste, so it is important that you pay attention to the details on the jar. As a rule of thumb, you can use the same amount of vanilla paste as you would vanilla extract.

How to Convert Vanilla Bean to Extract

Creating your own vanilla extract is quite easy. You only require a couple of ingredients, time, and a bit of patience. For the ingredients, you will need the following:

  • 1 cup of alcohol. The alcohol should be at least 35% alcohol content
  • An 8-ounce glass bottle or jar with a lid
  • 10 premium vanilla beans, which equal about 9 ounces of vanilla beans

The FDA has standards that call for a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans to 1 gallon of liquid. This ratio is approximately 0.9 ounces of vanilla beans to about 8 ounces of alcohol. When creating extract, you can use almost any type of alcohol. Most people prefer to use brandy, bourbon, or rum. The brand and quality of the alcohol don’t matter. The most important ingredients are the beans. You have to make an extract from either Grade A vanilla beans or a blend of gourmet quality beans. You can even get vanilla beans created for extraction.

Steps involved in making extract:

  • Slit the beans longways around, then put them into the jar.
  • Fill the jar with 8 ounces of your favorite alcohol. The beans must be fully submerged.
  • Secure the lid on the bottle or jar and give the mix a shake at least 2 times a week.
  • Be patient as it takes about 6 months to a year for the composition to turn into extract.

Is Vanilla Flavor the Same as Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla flavoring is an imitation of vanilla extract created from synthetic vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla beans their flavor. This type of vanilla utilizes artificial flavors to create a pure vanilla flavor. Compared to extract, vanilla flavoring is less expensive; however, the imitation does have a bitter aftertaste.

While extract has two ingredients alcohol and real vanilla beans, vanilla flavoring utilizes additives and artificial ingredients such as corn syrup, synthetic vanillin, and lignin, a wood pulp extract. While extract provides superior flavor, both products are great in baked goods such as brownies and sugar cookies.

Can You Use a Vanilla Extract Substitute?

If vanilla extract is unavailable, there are a couple of substitutes you can use. They are:

Brandy or rum

Since you can create extract by soaking the vanilla bean in alcohol, it makes sense that liquor can be an appropriate replacement. For this replacement, you can use an equal parts amount of brandy or rum in place of vanilla extract.

Vanilla Milk

You can use vanilla-flavored soy or almond milk in place of vanilla extract. With this substitution, you get the vanilla taste, and a bit of milk shouldn’t harm the overall recipe.

Almond Extract

Almond extract, as its name states, is extracted from almond oil. It has a stronger flavor than vanilla, meaning you need to use only half the almond extract that the recipe calls for. Since almond extract comes from almond oil, your recipe will have a nutty tinge. So you should ensure that you only use this extract substitute in recipes that require a nutty flavor.

Maple Syrup

maple syrup

Maple syrup has a flavor similar to vanilla extract so you can use it to replace vanilla extract. You need pure maple syrup to get the flavor as close as possible. Nevertheless, you can use pancake syrup as well. You should note that while the changes in flavor are subtle, maple syrup still has more sugar content than vanilla. You can control this by adjusting the amount of sugar you put in your recipe.

Other Extracts

You can use other flavor extracts like peppermint, lemon, and orange in place of vanilla extract. However, you should note that these extracts will significantly change the flavor of your finished item. When switching out vanilla extract for any of these extracts, you should keep the same ratio.

How to Make Vanilla Extract

Making vanilla extract is quite a simple process; however, it can also be time-consuming. The following steps are how to make your very own extract.

1.      First, select your beans

There are various vanilla bean varieties, all of them with their own unique flavor and appearance. In this section, we will highlight just three readily available types.


Beans from Tahiti contain floral notes coupled with subtle almond and cherry overtones. Due to this, they pair well with fruity desserts. They also provide a strong vanilla aroma.


Beans from Madagascar have a classic vanilla flavor typically described as sweet and creamy. Beans from Madagascar are typically used to create vanilla extract.


Vanilla experts describe beans from Mexico as woodsy coupled with spice hints. Mexican vanilla beans are a great choice for individuals looking to add something novel to their baking.

How many beans to use

Vanilla Beans

When creating extract, it is always best to use a maximum of three beans for every six ounces of extract you want to have. Nevertheless, if you select smaller bottles or jars, like a four-ounce jar, you can simply use one bean sliced into pieces.

To get darker-colored extract and a more robust flavor, you can use more beans. You can also switch it up by adding three beans to every six ounces if said beans appear dry or stiff. When beans look dry or stiff, it means that they are a couple of months old. Older beans lack the full flavor potential that fresh beans have, so you need to use more if you only have access to older beans.

2.      Select the alcohol

Once you have selected the variety and number of beans to use, the next step is to choose the type of alcohol to use as a base for your extract. For alcohol choices, you can select brandy, vodka, or any neutral-flavored alcohol.

You can also use rum as your alcohol base; however, you should refrain from using spiced varieties. The reason for this is that the flavor in the spices can overwhelm that of the vanilla beans. The same goes for bourbon, as its smoky and sweet flavor can overpower the vanilla flavor.

Now that you have your alcohol and vanilla beans, you can start making your extract.

3.      Slit the beans lengthwise

This step requires you to prep your beans. You do this by using the tip of a knife to cut through the bean. Doing this exposes the tiny seeds inside. The tiny seeds contain the richest flavor, so exposing them allows them to seep into your extract solution. Leave the bean attached at the top, making it easier for you to remove it later.

4.      Add or remove the specks in the vanilla extract

This step requires you to decide: what do you want your extract to look like once it is finished? Do you want it to have little vanilla bean specks, or do you want it to be clear? The answer to this is personal preference, as some people love their baked goods to have flecks of real vanilla beans in them. This is the same effect you get when using vanilla paste in your recipes. The specks provide a hint of the rich vanilla flavor.

Alternatively, you can remove the specks to have a purer extract by using the sharp tip of the knife to scrape the seeds out after you split the beans. You should note that removing the seeds means that the extract will take longer to infuse.

5.      Add the bean into your bottle or jar

You can use any jar or bottle you want; however, you should stick to the ratio mentioned earlier in the article. You can put six ounces of vanilla in a large bottle.

6.      Pour your chosen alcohol in

Once the bottle or jar is clean, measure out the alcohol. After this, you pour the alcohol into the jars. Pour enough alcohol into the jars to fully submerge the vanilla beans. If a part of the bean is sticking out, take it out and then cut it to size. Once all your beans are covered, seal the jar tight.

When pouring your alcohol, you should always take note of the bean to alcohol ratio. Doing this makes it easier to replicate the next time around.

7.      Store your mixture in a cool, dark place

Once you finish all the steps above, this is the most important step, and it is all about waiting. Find a cool place to keep your extract mixture while it rests. You might think placing it in the fridge would be a great idea, but the temperature in a fridge is too cold. If you have a basement, consider storing your extract there. Store it somewhere except the kitchen, as the kitchen is typically the warmest place in a home.

8.      Wait for the extract to infuse

There are variations in how long or short a time you should leave your vanilla beans to infuse. Generally, extracts made from beans with the seeds included take just a month to infuse; however, if you remove the seeds, the extract will require a minimum of three months to infuse.

Simply put, the amount of time you need to let your vanilla extract infuse isn’t an exact science. It depends on the makeup of your extract and how rich a vanilla flavor you want. Nevertheless, there are certain signs you should watch out for:

  • The vanilla fleck in your extract jar should have settled to the bottom.
  • The liquid in the jar should be brown or dark golden. As a rule of thumb, the darker the color, the deeper the vanilla flavor.
  • You should get a noticeable vanilla aroma when you come close to the jar. Since your extract was mostly alcohol, you will get a pungent smell at first. However, once the vanilla is fully infused, you should get the sweet tell-tale sign of vanilla.

You could also try baking with a bit of the extract to determine if it is ready. If you get subtle flavor notes, you can put the extract back to rest for an additional month. Note that once you make extract a couple of times, it will become easier to tell when fully infused.

9.      Strain your extract (if you want to)

This step is optional. Your extract is fully infused, and it is ready for use or to be given as a gift. You can choose to strain the bit of bean you don’t want in your jar. If you added vanilla seeds to create a vanilla bean flecked look, then you can skip the straining process. Alternatively, you can use a wide meshed strainer to remove the outer bean parts while allowing the seeds to flow through.

Once you take the bean out, you shouldn’t throw it away as it can still be useful. Dry it out and then save it for later, as you can use it to create vanilla sugar.

Best Vanilla Extract

best vanilla extract

There are various types of extract, all with their unique flavor notes and looks. The best vanilla extract depends on what you want to use it for.

Pure vanilla extract

Pure vanilla extract is derived from the essential oils of vanilla beans. The most effective way to draw out the essential oils is to submerse the vanilla bean in 70 proof or 35% alcohol. If you have an extract that doesn’t have the word “pure” in it, you aren’t getting real vanilla. Your vanilla extract uses synthetic ingredients.

If the extract is pure but has more than two ingredients (alcohol and vanilla beans), you are getting a sugar-infused and watered-down version of vanilla. If the pure vanilla is black, then it could be diluted using stabilizers and caramel colors. Pure vanilla is amber in color. It’s actually very pretty!

Real vanilla extract

Real extract is created from real vanilla, and it is the same as pure vanilla with no additives.

Mexican vanilla extract

While pure vanilla uses the bean pods of the vanilla plant, Mexican vanilla uses beans from the tonka tree. The Tonka tree is a completely different plant that belongs to the pea family.

Clear vanilla extract

Clear vanilla extract uses alcohol and vanilla beans, separated using a process known as fractional extraction. In this process, the beans are soaked in alcohol for 40 days before being separated from it. For instance, you can use a liter of alcohol to submerge seven ounces of vanilla beans. The beans are then separated from the alcohol after 40 days of sitting at room temperature.

Imitation vanilla extract

About 99% of vanilla extracts in the world are imitation. This statistic means the extracts aren’t created from the vanilla plant itself. Rather, they are flavored using synthetic vanillin. Imitation extract is labeled as vanilla essence, and it is mostly derived from non-organic materials such as petroleum.

While it can mimic the smell, most say it cannot capture the complex woody and floral notes that real extract provides.

Madagascar vanilla extract

Madagascar vanilla extract uses alcohol and vanilla beans from the island of Madagascar. Madagascar extract is also known as bourbon vanilla extract. The name bourbon doesn’t allude to the alcohol; it alludes to the island where vanilla is grown. Bourbon vanilla is the name given to all vanilla grown in the Indian ocean. So, vanilla from Comoros, Reunion Island, and Madagascar are known as bourbon vanilla.

Tahitian vanilla extract

Tahitian extract is the name given to the extract that utilizes vanilla beans from the island of Tahiti.