Do You Know Your Vanilla? (Part 2)

By Kristie | September 14, 2020

Welcome to part 2 of “Do You Know Your Vanilla”! In this series, we gather all the most popular and pressing questions about vanilla in one place and answer them, just for you. In this post, we’re talking all about vanilla extract, the baker’s best friend.

If you’ve read part 1, you know that vanilla beans are not really beans. Here, we’ll expose some more truths about vanilla’s extract form, and we hope that you’ll find them as interesting and useful as we do!

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Often thought of as the economical alternative to vanilla beans, vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla pods in alcohol to extract the flavor and oils. It’s not exactly a perfect, one-to-one replacement for real vanilla, though.

This is because the complex flavors of vanilla seeds can be easily destroyed if exposed to high levels of heat. In these cases — if you’re baking cookies or a cake, for example — it’s generally better to use vanilla extract in lieu of the pods. The reverse applies, too. With foods that are not cooked at high heat or where vanilla is the star flavor, using real vanilla beans will take these recipes to the next level.

Credit: 2020 creative commons user: mommyknows
Credit 2020 creative commons user irisphotos

What Does Vanilla Extract Add To Food?

Adding vanilla extract is akin to adding a bit of salt to sweet foods — it enhances the sweetness and other flavors of all the ingredients present. It’s kind of like a highlighter for your taste buds, adding that light vanilla flavor while bringing out the butter, eggs, milk, sugar, and anything else that the recipe requires.

If you want to do a little experimenting, try making a batch of something with vanilla extract and one without. The one without should generally taste a bit flatter.

Is There A "Best" Time To Add Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla in alcohol, and alcohol evaporates in high heat — along with the pungent vanilla flavor.

With high-heat bakes, like cakes and cookies, it doesn’t matter that much when you add the vanilla extract — the results will not differ. But with low or no-heat recipes, add the extract after cooking or cooling (if possible) so that the dish retains as much of the vanilla flavor as possible.

What Do I Do if I Added Too Much Vanilla Extract?

Don’t go overboard with vanilla! It’s one of those ingredients where a little goes a long way. Taste-wise, the result of adding too much vanilla extract to a recipe is an overwhelming vanilla/alcohol flavor and a bad aftertaste.

If you’ve just added a little too much, you can counteract it by sweetening the recipe. The sweetness will mask any bitterness from the alcohol and enhance the floral sweetness of the vanilla.

Another option, if you’ve added more than a little too much vanilla extract, is to dilute the whole recipe. Add a little more of every ingredient until the flavors are balanced again. This may mean doubling or tripling the recipe, depending on how much more extract you added!

Yet another thing you could do — if appropriate — is to add other flavors like chocolate or cinnamon in order to distract the taste buds from the vanilla. Or you could let the alcohol content of the extract evaporate by waiting it out or leaving it on heat for a little longer.

caredit 2020 creative commons user uwehermann

When Do I Use Imitation Vanilla Extract Versus Pure Vanilla Extract?

Imitation vanilla is simply vanillin — the main flavor component in vanilla — extracted from a different, cheaper source. Therefore, imitation vanilla has a less complex flavor profile than pure vanilla extract.

Use the pure stuff when vanilla is the spotlight flavor or scent of your recipe. With things like chocolate cake or fruit pastries, vanilla takes a bit of a backseat, so it won’t be so noticeable to use the imitation extract.

Feel free to experiment with both to see which extract you prefer for certain recipes. We debated the pros and cons of real versus fake vanilla in more detail here, so check it out if you’re interested!


What do you think? Have you learned any interesting tidbits about vanilla extract that you didn’t know before? Leave a reply below to let us know! We’d be very curious to find out what surprised you, or — better yet — if you have anything to add to our responses!

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