Whether you’re a beginner baker or you can whip up bananas foster with your eyes closed, chances are you’ve used vanilla extract. The ingredient, which is necessary for balancing sweetness in cookies and cakes, can run you more than $20.
Its high price point is why many people opt for imitation vanilla extract or vanilla flavoring instead. But what exactly is pure vanilla extract made from and is it interchangeable with its cheaper counterparts? Here’s the low down on the timeless pantry staple.
What is vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a solution of water and ethyl alcohol, such as vodka. The alcohol extracts the flavor, called vanillin, from the vanilla bean, hence the name.
In order to be labeled pure, the Food and Drug Administration states that vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and be 35% alcohol. But it can also contain ingredients like sugar, corn syrup or dextrose ─ ingredients you may find on vanilla extract bottles in grocery stores. Higher end extracts tend to omit the corn syrup and use premium ingredients, but the price tag can be even heftier.
Vanilla beans have more than 300 flavor compounds that become enhanced when the beans are soaked in a high quality or aged spirit like vodka or rum. Some manufacturers of vanilla extract opt for cheaper spirits like corn or sugar alcohol to keep prices low, but this can dilute the complex flavor of vanilla beans.
Since vanilla extract is made with alcohol, the flavors will continue to be extracted the longer they sit in the solution. It’s the same principle that applies to alcohol infusions that are made with fruits, herbs and vegetables.
What is the shelf life of vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract has a long shelf life and its flavor only continues to get better the longer it sits in your cabinet. It can last indefinitely if stored in a cool, dark cabinet, though it’s best used within five years. If you prepare your vanilla extract at home with fresh vanilla beans, you can keep adding vodka to the original bottle until the beans have given all the flavor they can.
What is the difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla?
Now that you know what pure vanilla extract is, let's go over how the imitation variety compares to the real stuff.
Imitation vanilla can be made from wood byproducts and other artificial ingredients that mimic the flavor of vanillin, the primary extracted flavor in vanilla beans. Some imitation vanilla products are clear, but others may add caramel coloring to give it a comparable color to pure vanilla extract.
Because it’s offered at a lower price point than pure vanilla extract, it’s a popular choice among home bakers looking to save a few bucks. It won’t alter the flavor of baked goods like cookies or cake where only a dash of vanilla is required, but you may find you need to use more imitation vanilla to get the desired flavor. The pure form of vanilla will be preferable in dishes where vanilla is the main flavor because of the potentness of real vanilla bean.
In addition to imitation vanilla, there’s also vanilla flavoring, which is made with real vanilla beans but excludes alcohol. No matter which variety you spring for, vanilla will make all of your homemade desserts shine just a little bit brighter.
This recipe is by Leah Eskin and was originally published in The Chicago Tribune.
Step 1: Use a small sharp knife to slit the vanilla beans lengthwise. Slip the beans into the bottle of vodka. Close and store in a cool dark cupboard. (Consider sliding the bottle back into its paper bag.)
Step 2: Let rest 3 (or more) weeks. Shake a few times per week.
Step 3: Set a sieve lined with cheesecloth over a quart-size measuring cup. Strain extract. Pour strained extract into small glass (preferably dark) bottles. If you like, add a length of vanilla bean to each small bottle. Leave as is, or get fancy with the labeling.
Step 4: You can continue to add vodka to your original bottle for a time; eventually the beans will have given their all.