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Baking Tip: When to Use Flavoring Oils vs. Extracts

Walk down the baking aisle of pretty much any grocery store, and you’re guaranteed to find a literal wall of extracts. Vanilla is the most common and popular option amongst the bottles, vials, and boxes, but it’s hardly the only one.

From cherry to coffee to almond, these intensely concentrated solutions allow the characteristics and flavors of the showcase ingredient to really shine through. For instance, think of the impact of adding peppermint extract to a mug of hot chocolate, as opposed to a handful of mint leaves!

The process of creating flavor extracts involves using a liquid base to pull the flavorful oils from herbs, spices, nuts or fruit. It’s not unlike brewing a cup of coffee, where hot water is run through ground beans to produce a liquid extract.

That said, water and oil (which is what contains all those aromatic compounds) eventually separate. That’s why alcohol — most frequently ethyl alcohol, produced from fermented corn — is generally used, when it comes to crafting shelf-stable, fully emulsified extracts.

So what’s the difference between, say, vanilla flavor vs. extract? Pure vanilla extract must be made from real vanilla beans, alcohol, and water, and is required by the FDA to contain 35% alcohol by volume and at least 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter.

Vanilla flavor, on the other hand, exists as an inexpensive substitute, due to the fact that it’s made with ingredients that are either a dilution of (or mimic the flavor of) the real thing. More often than not, that includes vanillin, a naturally occurring chemical compound found in vanilla beans.

Clearly, there are a lot of types and terms thrown around when it comes to extracts. You may come across organic flavor extracts — containing organic alcohol and organically sourced flavor compounds — as well as natural flavor extracts. “Natural” refers to the fact that the flavor compounds come from plants (or nature) instead of being artificial.

That said, they may be derived from different parts of the plant, such as the stems and leaves of the vanilla orchid instead of the bean, which prevents them from being classified as “pure.”

When it comes to cooking and baking, you can use any of these options pretty interchangeably. That’s because the heat dissipates the alcohol and tamps down the flavor, which is why extracts are largely intended to enhance a recipe, rather than playing a starring role themselves.

Vanilla for instance, functions similarly to salt, punching up the impact of the ingredients around it, and making them taste more like themselves (instead of necessarily tasting like vanilla). On the other hand, recipes that require low or no heat, such as ice cream, frosting, pudding, parfaits, marshmallows or whipped cream, are better served by pure extracts, rather than flavorings.

Either way, the best extract flavors compliment and elevate a dish, rather than overwhelm it. Try raspberry extract in our Raspberry Brownie Cookies, licorice-like anise extract in spicy German Pfeffernuesse, ever-popular almond extract in a Toasted Almond Latte, and coconut extract in this Hawaii-inspired Aloha Cake.

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Care to try your hand at making your own extract? DIY vanilla extract involves steeping vanilla pods in vodka (or bourbon, or rum) for at least 3 months and up to a year, until it’s dark in color, and the incredible aroma is infused throughout.

You can also create spice extract by infusing every 8-ounces of vodka with whole spices, such as 4 sticks of cinnamon. As for novelty extracts such as cake batter, pumpkin pie and root beer (or if you’d rather skip the waiting and just get to baking) it’s best to leave extract-making up to the experts!

Nine times out of ten, recipes will guide us toward using an extract, like vanilla extract or peppermint extract, to add flavor to our baked goods.

But then what are those tantalizing bottles of flavoring oils doing on the shelf? Ever wonder when we might use those oils instead? Flavoring extracts are usually made by literally extracting the flavor of the source ingredient into a liquid base, usually alcohol. For instance, pure vanilla extract is usually made by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol for an extended period of time.

Flavoring oils, on the other hand, are the essential oil squeezed from the ingredient itself – the oils from the vanilla bean, the oils from the almond nut, the oil from the orange rind, and so on. These oils are much more concentrated and intense than their extracts, and their flavor is often more pure and clear-tasting. (Also, some extracts are made by diluting the oil in alcohol.)

We tend to use extracts in our everyday baking where the flavor is playing a supporting, rather than a starring, role. Things like the vanilla in a batch of cookies or the peppermint flavor in brownies. The oils are really fantastic when you want that specific flavor to really shine through. We’ll use them to give intense flavors to things like candies, frosting, and buttercream fillings.

Flavoring oils and extracts can be easily substituted for one another in most recipes. Since flavoring oils are so much more concentrated, you only need a few drops in place of a teaspoon of extract.

One other thing to note is that flavoring oils are usually less shelf-stable than extracts. They have to be refrigerated after opening and will eventually go rancid. For this reason, only buy oils that you’ll be sure to use up within a few months.

Look for flavoring oils at gourmet food stores and well-stocked kitchen stores. One of our favorite online sources for both extracts and oils is King Arthur Flour:

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• Extracts from King Arthur Flour

• Flavoring Oils from King Arthur Flour

So that all in mind, when you are trying to decide between extracts and oils, you will have to consider:

• The recipe I am making; Will it be heated? Will it be frozen? Is it highly acidic?

• Shortage of product. In case of shortage oil can be used as extract. But in case of shortage extract can not be used as oil.

• Expiry date: Oil is more perishable than an extract so you have to choose carefully. Always check the expiry date before buying. If the date is near then don’t buy that product unless you finish it on or before the expiry date.

Is vanilla extract and Flavouring the same?

No, you cannot use flavoring in place of vanilla extract in recipes. Flavors are very concentrated and contain alcohol, which would make the recipe fail. Vanilla extract is water based and will be absorbed by the other ingredients in the recipe and help bring about a natural flavor without affecting the texture or structure.

Where can I buy flavoring extracts?

You can find them at grocery stores and specialty shops. They can cost from $6 to $20 for a 4 oz bottle of pure vanilla extract depending on brand name, type (if it is pure vanilla versus natural) and quality. A lot of specialty shops will carry a higher quality brands at a higher price, but there are equally high-quality shop brands in our local grocery stores.

How long do flavoring extracts last?

Flavoring extracts have a shelf life of about five years. As soon as it has turned or begun to turn they need to be discarded because they may eventually become rancid.

How long do flavoring oils last?

Oils have a much greater duration of shelf life and can be used for up to six months after opening. You can keep them in the refrigerator or give them away or discard them when they have expired.

What is difference between extract and flavor emulsion?

Extracts and emulsion can be used interchangeably. The main difference is that extracts are liquefied, which makes them easier to use by the cook in a recipe. Emulsions, like vanilla bean paste, are thicker and contain no alcohol (vanilla bean paste is made from vanilla beans that have been dried, then finely ground and suspended in alcohol). Vanilla bean paste is easier to use by the cook than an extract because it is so thick.

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What are vanilla extract and flavoring?

Vanilla extract and flavoring are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Flavors are pure extracts containing no alcohol, while vanilla extract can contain just a small amount of alcohol. Flavors can be anything from cinnamon to wine, or vanilla bean, or pumpkin puree. Flavors have to be made with a certain amount of alcohol because they contain that liquid, which would make the recipe fail if you subtracted it out. Vanilla extracts vary in strength – some contain only 2% ABV, others contain up to 12%.

Do extracts have flavor?

The flavor of extracts comes from the oils in the ingredients used. There are no flavorings added, so where the flavors come from is all natural. If a recipe calls for unsweetened cocoa powder and vanilla extract, then you might also add peppermint flavoring to make peppermint bark. It’s most common to use extract as an addition, rather than a substitution for other ingredients in recipes.

What is non-alcohol vanilla extract?

All extracts contain some alcohol. Vanilla extract typically contains 1-2% alcohol and is labeled “pure” or “natural” vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract is made by mixing a vanilla bean into water and alcohol, then straining the bean out. Non-alcoholic extracts are labeled “imitation” vanilla extract. Imitation extracts contain glycerin and vanillin, which is synthesized from lignin. These synthetic ingredients may be found as the number one ingredient in “imitation” vanilla extract.

What is imitation or artificial flavor?

Artificial or imitation flavor contains laboratory made chemicals that are not natural. Artificial flavors are used when natural flavor oils are not available or do not have the desired effect on the food item. Artificial flavorings can be used as a substitute for natural flavors, but because they are not as pure as natural flavors, artificial flavorings will effect the texture and taste of the food more than they would a natural flavor. Artificial flavors can be used in place of their real ingredient to create a similar tasting product.

Do extracts contain alcohol?

Vanilla extract contains alcohol and should not be used in edibles that contain blood (a small amount is OK) or if stored at room temperature – warm temperatures encourage the growth of bacteria. Some recipes may require that you remove the vanilla beans from your extract before adding it to your recipe.

Extracts are more versatile than oils. Since they contain no alcohol they can be used in place of oils in recipes rather than substituting other ingredients. They can also be mixed with oils to make emulsions, which is a middle ground between liquid extracts and emulsified flavors.

Flavoring extracts contain alcohol and should not be used in edibles that contain blood (a small amount is OK) or if stored at room temperature – warm temperatures encourage the growth of bacteria. Some recipes may require that you remove the vanilla beans from your extract before adding it to your recipe. It’s always wise to check with your source before you use either ingredient so that you have no surprises or complications.

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