When it comes to desserts — cookies, cake, custards, and more — vanilla extract is one of the most popular ingredients.
It also makes a great addition to drinks, meats, dressings, marinades, and more. Though you might associate vanilla extract with desserts, you can also use it to pep up healthy meals, including:
- roasted fruits
The aromatic extract is made from bean pods of Vanilla planifolia orchid flowers. People often describe its flavor profile as warm and floral, and vanilla can be earthy yet subtly sweet and comforting.
Though vanilla extract is a pantry staple in many households, there may be times when you don’t have any on hand or wonder whether you can leave it out.
The answer is yes — whether you’re working on a sweet or savory dish, you can use many alternative ingredients to build flavor in place of vanilla.
This article lists 7 of the best substitutes for vanilla extract.
Why you might want a substitute for vanilla extract
There are many reasons why you might be looking for a replacement for vanilla extract.
Of course, you might be in a pinch — you’ve run out, or your grocery store doesn’t have any.
Price may also be a factor. Pure vanilla extract, the type most prized by bakers and home chefs alike, isn’t cheap.
For example, when Madagascar’s crops experienced a few years of low output from 2016–2018, the price of vanilla flew sky high from below $100 per kg ($45 per pound) to $600 per kg ($272 per pound).
Furthermore, some people choose not to use pure vanilla extract because of its alcohol content, which is at least 35%.
Others are concerned about the vanilla industry’s sustainability and might avoid using the product for environmental reasons.
Summary: Lack of availability, high price, environmental concerns, and alcohol content are a few reasons why some people look for substitutes for vanilla extract.
7 substitutes for vanilla extract
Here are 7 of the best substitutes for vanilla extract:
1. Vanilla beans
Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol and water. Thus, whole vanilla beans are its closest alternative flavor-wise.
To use a whole vanilla bean in place of vanilla extract, carefully slice the bean in half and scrape out the soft seed interior using a knife, fork, or toothpick. You can discard or repurpose the outer bean pod and use the seeds in place of the vanilla extract.
To replace one tablespoon (15 mL) of vanilla extract, use the inner seeds of 1 whole vanilla bean pod.
Additionally, you can find many flavorings made from vanilla beans online and in specialty grocery stores, making a fine substitute for vanilla extract. You can likewise make many of these at home.
The list below includes a few of the most popular vanilla-based flavorings and how to use them in place of vanilla extract:
Vanilla bean powder
- How it’s made: dried and ground vanilla beans
- To replace 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla extract, use 1/2–1 tbsp. (8–15 mL) of vanilla bean powder
Vanilla bean paste
- How it’s made: a combination of vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder
- To replace 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla extract, use 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla bean paste
- How it’s made: salt infused with vanilla bean flavor
- To replace 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla extract, omit the vanilla extract and use this option to replace the salt in your recipe or sprinkle it on top of the finished dish
- How it’s made: sugar infused with vanilla bean flavor
- To replace 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla extract, omit the vanilla extract and use this option to replace the sugar in your recipe or sprinkle it on top of the finished dish
- How it’s made: a combination of sugar and water infused with vanilla beans
- To replace 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla extract, use 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla syrup
- How it’s made: milk infused with vanilla bean flavor
- To replace 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla extract, use 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of vanilla-flavored milk, or omit the vanilla extract and use vanilla milk to replace the milk in your recipe
2. Flavored extracts
As with vanilla, a myriad of flavored extracts is made from other natural and artificial flavors.
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After vanilla, almond extract is one of the most common extracts people use in baking. You can replace vanilla extract with almond extract at a 1:1 ratio.
That means replacing every one tablespoon (15 mL) of vanilla extract in the recipe with one tablespoon (15 mL) of almond extract.
You can also find orange, peppermint, coffee extracts, and more — many of which work beautifully in chocolate and baked goods.
Still, using another flavor instead of vanilla extract could drastically alter the taste of your final dish. For that reason, you might want to use less extract than you usually would to ensure the flavor isn’t too overpowering.
3. Herbs and spices
People use vanilla to add depth of flavor to a dish. When you can’t use vanilla, choosing another flavor profile and rolling with that may be the next best option.
For example, in place of vanilla extract, you could add 1–2 tablespoons (15–30 mL) of chai spice to a batch of cookies or your favorite pound cake recipe.
A dried herb like lavender adds a floral depth to oatmeal or yogurt, similar to how vanilla would.
Even when you’re using vanilla to build flavor in savory dishes, warm spices like cinnamon and cloves might be able to compensate for the lack of vanilla.
4. Fruit zest
Another quick way to replace vanilla with an ingredient you might already have on hand is to use the zest or juice of citrus fruits, such as:
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If you want to bring flavor to your recipe without adding any tartness or additional liquids, add 1–2 tablespoons (15–30 mL) of zest to your baked goods, salad dressings, sauces, or even to top off dishes.
If you’re not as worried about how the acidic juice will affect the texture or flavor of your dish, substitute 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of lemon juice for each 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of vanilla extract.
5. Maple syrup
Many people like to use maple syrup as a replacement for vanilla, using 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of syrup for each 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of extract.
To some, the scent and the hint of sweetness from maple syrup are reminiscent of vanilla.
Note that when you substitute an ingredient like maple syrup for vanilla extract, it could change the calorie content of a dish. If you’re only using a few tablespoons or less, the swap won’t make much of a difference, but in larger amounts it could be more notable in larger amounts.
This list shows the calories in 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of vanilla extract and a few other popular substitutes:
- Vanilla extract: 37
- Maple syrup: 52
- Honey: 64
- Liquor: 33
Honey is another liquid sweetener that can easily be swapped in at a 1:1 ratio for vanilla extract. It will add flavor to your dish, though it’s milder than vanilla extract.
Honey is sweeter than other substitutes listed in this article, so you might want to slightly reduce the amount of any other sugars or sweeteners in your dish to compensate.
It’s also possible that the added sugar could alter the final texture of some dishes.
Since vanilla extract comprises at least 35% alcohol, it makes sense that using another type of alcohol in its place could work.
Though they won’t deliver the same results as vanilla, other flavorful liquors will add their own layers of complexity to dishes. Options include:
Plus, since their compositions are similar to vanilla extract, liquors might not affect the texture or mouthfeel of recipes like some other substitutes would.
Summary: Many ingredients aside from vanilla extract capture the full-bodied flavor of vanilla beans, and most are great substitutes for the extract. If vanilla beans aren’t available, consider using fruit, spices, liquor, or liquid sweeteners instead.
Can I use imitation vanilla?
Imitation vanilla flavor — sometimes referred to as “vanilla essence” — is much more affordable than pure vanilla extract. You might wonder whether shelling out extra for pure vanilla extract makes a difference.
For recipes in which vanilla is the primary flavor component, such as pound cake or ice cream, many chefs would say that pure vanilla is the only way to go.
That’s because pure vanilla extracts contain hundreds of chemical compounds, including vanillin, tannins, and polyphenols, giving it a rich, robust flavor profile.
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Pure vanilla is also valued for its antioxidant content and potential medicinal properties, though much of the research on this topic is older.
On the other hand, when vanilla is serving as a secondary flavor component, or if imitation vanilla is all that’s available, substituting it for pure extract at a 1:1 ratio will likely do just fine.
Summary: Though many bakers and home chefs prefer pure vanilla extract for its robust, complex flavor, you can also use imitation vanilla to make dishes with a similar taste and texture, but at a fraction of the cost.
How to make your own vanilla extract
Making your own vanilla extract at home is incredibly easy and affordable.
Nevertheless, making a vanilla extract with deep flavors requires weeks, if not months, of time to allow the flavor from the vanilla beans to seep into the extract mixture.
As a result, making your own vanilla extract may not be a viable option when you’re short on time.
Here is a simple recipe that I’ve had luck with in my home kitchen:
Homemade vanilla extract
This recipe makes 1 cup of homemade vanilla extract.
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- 6 vanilla beans
- 1 cup of 70-proof liquor, such as vodka, rum, or bourbon
- an 8-ounce (237-mL) glass jar
- Sterilize your jar. To ensure the storage container is clean and sterile, wash your jar with warm, soapy water and then carefully rinse or submerge it in boiling water before use.
- Slice the vanilla beans open lengthwise. This allows the vanilla bean seeds to seep from the pod into the extract. Place the vanilla beans and any seeds into the glass jar.
- Combine your extract. Pour the liquor into the jar, ensuring the beans are fully covered. Seal the jar tightly and give it a swirl.
- Let it sit. Allow the vanilla beans to infuse the extract for at least a few weeks before using it. Some people let it sit for six months or more. Turning the extract upside down or shaking it gently helps it absorb the vanilla flavor.
- Enjoy. When it’s ready to use, you’ll notice the extract will have turned darker in color and more robust in aroma. You can either remove the vanilla beans or leave them in the jar.
- To make it alcohol-free. In place of the liquor, combine 3/4 cup (177 mL) of vegetable glycerin and 1/4 cup (59 mL) of water for your extract base.
Choosing liquor that’s 70–80 proof means your extract will be between 35–40% alcohol by volume.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires products labeled and sold as pure vanilla extract comprise no less than 35% alcohol, so this recipe will help you achieve that.
This recipe is a guideline for making your own at home. The type of vanilla beans you use, the alcohol type, and the length of time you allow the vanilla beans to steep could all vary to affect the final product subtly — the flavor possibilities are endless!
As long as you’re working with quality ingredients, this recipe is tough to mess up.
Summary: Making your own vanilla extract at home is as simple as combining vanilla bean pods with alcohol. It’s also easy to experiment with different flavors by using more or fewer vanilla beans and other types of alcohol.
There are many reasons you might choose to skip vanilla in your recipes and use one of these seven substitutes instead.
Doing so will surely change the flavor of your recipe, but it likely won’t significantly affect the texture or final quality of the dish.
Fortunately, that’s part of the fun of cooking! If you experiment with new ingredients, you might discover a delicious combo you’d never even considered before.