Almost every home baker has run into the dilemma of being nearly done with a delicious recipe, only to realize you have only a drip of vanilla extract left in its tiny bottle. If you are baking and want a replacement for vanilla extract, you have a few options that will work well — and others that won’t.
Here’s what you need to know.
Perhaps the most obvious replacement for pure vanilla extract is imitation vanilla extract or flavor, which is widely available at most grocery stores. However, you may notice the differences in the subtleties of the flavor.
“Chemically, there are no pros or cons to it that I have encountered,” said Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts and restaurant food service management at Eastern Maine Community College. “To me it’s akin to those who don’t see a difference between real butter and margarine, for example.”
The impact on taste will also depend on how you are using your imitation vanilla extract.
“Are you going to detect the difference in a chocolate chip cookie where there are already so many levels of sweetness that overpower the subtlety? Maybe not,” Demers said. “But in crème brûlée, vanilla bean gelato [or] pound cake, where the vanilla is the star, you can really detect the difference.”
If you do not have imitation vanilla extract on-hand, Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, said that any other extract available at the store will work from a functional perspective. Almond especially is a popular replacement. However, he warned that it will change the taste.
“This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a dessert that may already have some almond going on in it,” Demers added.
However, Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College, said that in her experience, the flavor of almond extract might be too overwhelming for your baked goods.
“Almond extract is very fragrant and on the strong side, so I wouldn’t use it to replace vanilla,” Enjaian said. “It is a lovely extract that you can use for many baked goods, just use sparingly.”
Another replacement for vanilla extract you can use is alcohol, which forms the base for vanilla extract anyways. Dumas recommended bourbon or rum.
“Bourbon or rum would likely be the closest in terms of replacing the flavor of vanilla,” Dumas said.
Demers recommended something like vanilla flavored vodka, although he said it would likely “give you less of the floral quality of pure vanilla extract.”
Maple syrup is also often suggested as a replacement for vanilla extract (and a more locally sourced one at that). Enjaian said that if she had to choose, maple syrup is the replacement for vanilla extract that she would elect.
However, maple syrup may work as a vanilla extract swap in some recipes better than others.
“I wouldn’t swap maple for vanilla in most instances,” Dumas said. “It would introduce water and sugar, both of which could cause an adverse result on a cookie or frosting. It would likely be ok in a cake or muffin batter.”
Ultimately, vanilla is a difficult flavor to replace, and having a homemade vanilla extract on hand will help elevate your cooking. You may be best to just leave it out if you don’t have any.
“I usually don’t try to replace vanilla extract,” Enjaian said. “Honestly, if I don’t have vanilla, I just leave it out. It will affect the flavor, and that is why it’s good to have a back up.”
If you do want to have vanilla on hand (and don’t mind waiting), you can make your own vanilla extract with a few simple ingredients. But it’s important to know that it won’t be ready for months.