If you’ve made chocolate chip cookies or a birthday cake from scratch, chances are the recipe called for vanilla extract. This ingredient is typically used in small amounts to enhance the other flavors in a recipe and may impart a subtle vanilla flavor.
When shopping for vanilla extract, you’ll likely see products labeled as either “pure vanilla extract” or “vanilla essence.” The latter is also called imitation vanilla flavor.
Pure vanilla extract is generally more expensive. Aside from the cost, you may wonder how the two differ.
This article explains the differences between vanilla extract and essence, then tells you whether you can swap one for the other.
What are these two vanilla products?
Vanilla extract is less processed and expensive than vanilla essence, and many say it has a more robust, purer flavor.
What is vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol.
The extract gets its signature vanilla flavor from a molecule called vanillin found in vanilla beans.
Standards for pure vanilla extract vary by country. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that the final product must contain at least 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces (380 grams) of vanilla beans per gallon (3.8 liters).
As long as it meets these standards, the vanilla extract may also contain small amounts of sweeteners, including sugar, corn syrup, or dextrose.
How is vanilla extract made?
Pure vanilla extract is made from mature vanilla bean pods aged 3–4 months, allowing them to develop characteristic vanilla flavors, including increased levels of vanillin.
Once cured, the pods are added to a mixture of water and ethyl alcohol. The alcohol draws out the vanillin and other compounds, which infuse into the liquid. This can be a time-consuming process.
Food manufacturers can manipulate environmental conditions to speed up the extraction process. However, the mixture must sit for up to 12 months in home kitchens before it’s ready to use.
After the extraction is complete, the bean pods are filtered out, and the extract is ready to use.
What is vanilla essence?
Vanilla essence, also known as artificial vanilla extract, is typically made using water, ethanol, propylene glycol, emulsifiers, and chemically produced flavors and colors.
Like the extract, vanilla essence gets its flavor from vanillin — but it’s a lab-made (synthetic) version that’s much less expensive than vanilla beans.
Castoreum — a secretion from the anal glands of beavers with a smell similar to vanilla — is often rumored to be a key ingredient in vanilla essence. However, castoreum is rarely used in food.
The latest data suggests that fewer than 150 pounds (68 kg) of castoreum are used in food per year in the United States, compared with worldwide demand for over 40 million pounds (18 million kg) of vanillin per year.
Summary: Vanilla essence is a more processed product using artificial flavors and colors. Vanilla extract, on the other hand, is made primarily from vanilla beans soaked in ethyl alcohol and water, so it tends to have a stronger vanilla flavor.
Can you substitute imitation vanilla flavor for pure vanilla extract?
Using vanilla essence in place of vanilla extract should not affect the structure of your final product, though it may produce noticeable differences in flavor.
In addition to vanillin, vanilla beans contain more than 200 compounds that contribute to their flavor and aroma. As a result, pure vanilla extract has a deeper, more complex flavor profile.
This difference tends to be more noticeable in dishes that are either uncooked or cooked over low heat. So for desserts like puddings, custards, pastry creams, and icings, it’s best to use pure vanilla extract.
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However, for baked goods that aren’t expected to have a noticeable vanilla flavor, such as chocolate chip cookies or carrot cake, you likely won’t notice much difference using vanilla essence.
Additionally, depending on the brand, the flavor of vanilla extract is generally twice as strong as that of vanilla essence. So if you’re using vanilla essence in a recipe that calls for pure vanilla extract, you’ll want to use up to twice as much.
This list suggests which dishes to use vanilla extract or vanilla essence for:
- Vanilla cake: Vanilla extract
- Chocolate cake: Vanilla essence
- Chocolate chip cookies: Vanilla essence
- Iced coffee: Vanilla extract
- Cheesecake: Vanilla essence
- Vanilla ice cream: Vanilla extract
- Homemade frosting or icing: Vanilla extract
- Vanilla pudding: Vanilla extract
- Chocolate pudding: Vanilla essence
Generally, natural vanilla extract is best for uncooked dishes or relies on vanilla as the key flavor. In contrast, vanilla essence may be a better fit for baked goods that don’t need a strong vanilla punch.
If you want to avoid artificial flavors and colors, you’ll likely want to choose pure vanilla extract over vanilla essence.
Summary: Vanilla extract and essence are largely interchangeable. However, the stronger extract flavor may be preferable for uncooked dishes, items cooked at low heat, and foods that require a powerful vanilla punch.
How to make homemade vanilla extract
Here’s a simple recipe for homemade vanilla extract.
Ingredients for homemade vanilla extract
- 3–6 vanilla bean pods
- 8 ounces (240 mL) of vodka
- Slice each vanilla bean pod in half.
- Add vanilla bean pods and cover with vodka in a sanitized jar or bottle with an airtight lid.
- Close the bottle and store it in a cool, dark place, such as your pantry, for at least 6 weeks and up to 12 months.
- When ready to use the extract, remove the vanilla beans.
The more vanilla beans you use, the stronger the taste. It’s a good idea to shake the bottle periodically.
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Although the high alcohol content of the vodka should inhibit bacterial growth, don’t use your vanilla extract if it has visible mold growth or a foul odor.
Summary: Although it requires a long wait, homemade vanilla extract needs just two ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka.
Despite being used in small amounts, vanilla extract can enhance the flavor of your favorite dessert.
Because vanilla extract is made from pure vanilla beans, it has a stronger, more complex flavor than vanilla essence, which is cheaper but artificially flavored.
While you can use vanilla essence in baked goods where vanilla isn’t the key flavor, it may be worth splurging on natural vanilla extract the next time you make vanilla pudding or royal icing from scratch.
Spice like vanilla and cinnamon add a mildly sweet flavor to foods without sugar if you’re trying to cut back on your sugar intake. Try this flavor combo on your favorite homemade dessert to see how you like it.