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What is Vanilla Extract? (Do You Actually Need It?)

Baking is really just chemistry. Like a scientist in a lab, you have to mix the right amount of ingredients together in the proper order, use heat or cold in a specific way and you end up creating something brand-new. Recipes may have eggs, or not. They may contain flour, or not. They might have sugar or some substitute. But one thing seems to be universal: you need about a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Everyone has this brown bottle somewhere on a shelf and every single recipe seems to require this one ingredient. What the heck does vanilla extra really do? is it something you even actually need to add? What happens if you don’t? Doesn’t vanilla extract have alcohol in it?

And can you use the imitation stuff instead? There are a lot of questions about this baking essential ingredient, like whether or not it even matters at all. It’s time to take a deep dive into the world of vanilla extract and find out why this is one baking ingredient you just can’t do without.

Related: Quarantine Baking | Types of Chocolates | Types of Cheesecakes | Types of Dough | Types of Sugar

What is Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is made when split vanilla beans are soaked in ethanol and water. Usually, a blend of different vanilla beans is used. Pure vanilla extract is comprised of exactly 35 percent alcohol. The rest of the mixture is water and vanilla bean.

Here’s a photo of the split vanilla beans used for making vanilla extract:

Split vanilla bean

Martha Stewart has her own recipe for homemade vanilla extract. To make it, split two vanilla beans open and place them in a glass jar with a cup of unflavored vodka. Use the best quality vodka possible. Store the bottle in a cool, dark place for about two months. Shake the bottle every once in a while, maybe every 14 days. At the end of 60 days, you’ll have your own vanilla extract.

Imitation vs. Pure Vanilla

Imitation vanilla extra is made up of artificial vanilla flavoring called vanillin. It tastes like real vanilla bean, but it’s actually just made up in a lab and not grown in nature. Most of the vanilla-flavored food items you eat are actually made with vanillin, not real vanilla. About 95 percent of all the vanilla flavoring used in food is actually vanillin.

You may have noticed that imitation vanilla extract is way, way more affordable than pure vanilla extract. The price of vanilla beans has been steadily climbing over the years and this has become quite a pricey ingredient.

Vanilla Extract, Vanilla Oil, and Vanilla Flavoring

So is vanilla oil the same thing as vanilla extract? And what about vanilla flavoring? Both vanilla oil and pure vanilla extract are made from vanilla beans. With vanilla oil, the beans are mixed with oil.

This creates a scented oil that is applied to the skin like perfume. And while vanilla oil is made from edible ingredients, it’s not meant to be ingested. Vanilla oil is not used for cooking; it’s used as aromatherapy because the smell is considered sweet and soothing.

When you see the words “vanilla flavoring” on a food label, that likely refers to the vanillin that is created as an alternative to real vanilla bean.

Is Vanilla Extract Really Necessary?

The ingredients for making homemade vanilla extract.

Okay…but do you really even need it? Like really, really? How much difference can one teaspoon of extract make in a whole big batch of brownies, anyway? Actually, it can make a lot of difference. When you ask professional bakers, they say that vanilla extract is absolutely necessary.

When used in dessert recipes to create cakes, brownies, cupcakes, cookies, and similar sweets, vanilla doesn’t necessarily make what you’re baking taste vanilla. What it does is enhance the flavors of everything else you’re putting in the recipe. Against chocolate, for example, vanilla helps bring out the chocolate flavor and gives its own sweetness to the recipe.

Bakers also say that it’s always best to use pure vanilla extract, as opposed to the imitation stuff because the flavor is a little different. But if you want to save a little money on your baking, it’s okay to use the imitation stuff in most recipes. If you’re making something that has a strong vanilla flavor, you may want to spring for the real stuff to get the best possible flavor.

Is Vanilla Extract Gluten-Free?

Pure vanilla extract contains alcohol, which removes almost all traces of gluten. This means that vanilla extract is mostly gluten-free. And since it’s used in such small amounts in baking, vanilla extract is pretty safe for those who have any gluten sensitivity. However, you should always check the label and the ingredients in vanilla extract. Some extracts may contain additional ingredients, such as corn syrup.

Substitutions for Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract about to be added to the cookie batter.

If you run out of vanilla extract and can’t get any at the store, you may feel a little stuck. After all, this ingredient truly is in most recipes for baked goods. But there are some straightforward swaps you can make if you need a substitution for vanilla extract.

Bourbon actually works quite well as a substitute for vanilla extract. It’s made up of a lot of alcohol, like vanilla, and it has a sweet flavor to it. Brandy also works as a substitute for vanilla extract.

You can also use maple syrup instead of vanilla extract because it’s actually made of vanillin, which is what you get with imitation vanilla extract anyway.

When the store is sold out of vanilla extract, you may instinctively turn to other extracts. Almond is a common sight on grocery store shelves but you can also find peppermint and lemon extract. Any of these extracts can be evenly swapped out for vanilla extract, but it will slightly change the flavor of whatever you’re baking based on the extract you use.

A little vanilla milk can be substituted for extract as well. This will add that vanilla flavor and do the same job as vanilla extract.

Baking with Vanilla Extract

Now that you know more about vanilla extract and what it does, you see that this is a kitchen essential. The next time you bake, make sure you don’t leave this ingredient out!