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Do You Really Need to Bake with Vanilla Extract?

If you’re anything like most people, you’re pretty convinced that baking with vanilla extract is a requirement. But what if we told you that it’s not? And what if we went on to tell you about all of the different extracts and flavors that are out there for use in baking, often at a fifth of the cost? Well, here we go…

Vanilla extract is made by combining alcohol and vanilla beans. Once combined, the mixture is aged for two months in oak barrels. The resulting product is then tested, bottled and shipped.

When you make a vanilla extract, you’re really just concentrating the alcohol-vanilla bean combination. It’s about 70% alcohol by volume. Or, when the bottle does say “alcohol” on it, it’s really referring to that blend of alcohol and vanilla extract which gives you your recipe for vanilla extract in the first place.

That blend includes some sort of flavoring that your exact recipe calls for as well as an assortment of herbs and spices which are added to give a certain flavor profile to the finished product – like Bourbon vanilla, which is aged in bourbon barrels with other ingredients. You’re not really extracting anything. Instead, you’re putting dried beans into alcohol and letting it sit for a while.

The end result is that “pure vanilla extract” is nothing more than vanilla beans and alcohol. You can even make your own extract if you want to save some money, just visit the website of your favorite company and check out their recipe. They’ll tell you how much alcohol to buy, how many beans, how long to let it sit for and what kind of container you’ll use to store the final product in.

And this is where we come back to our original point: Do you really need to use vanilla extract?

Baking with vanilla extract is a matter of preference and personal taste, but you can also substitute other flavors for it. The main reason people use it is because they want the extra flavor that comes from the alcohol-extract blend, but if you’re making something like a cake that doesn’t need to be super-flavored, it’s not necessary. Vanilla beans are plenty flavorful on their own and impart a much more natural flavor than the extracts do.

On a side note, be sure and use vanilla beans when you make extract so that you get your most flavorful result. The cheaper extracts tend to come from vanillin, which is the compound that gives vanilla its characteristic flavors, but it’s not as flavorful as the real stuff. Instead of using vanilla extract, try making your own extract at home by placing whole vanilla beans in a jar and covering them with alcohol.

Use a wooden spoon to press down on them until all the flavor has been transferred into the alcohol. Keep it at room temperature and store it out of direct sunlight for up to six months. (It will still work if left in storage for longer than six months but won’t have nearly as much flavor.

There are many unofficial ‘rules’ in baking. Like the fact that vanilla extract belongs in every single recipe. That little brown bottle adds complexity and helps the sugar taste more caramelly-sweet and the butter taste richer. Or does it?

Recently, I noticed that The New York Times’ Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe doesn’t include vanilla extract. Moreover, neither do my two favorite cookies: a treasured family shortbread recipe and a Coconut Oat Cookie from a recent edition of Food Network Magazine. Neither falls short in flavor or texture.

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All of these observations got me wondering whether or not vanilla extract is necessary in baking. It’s expensive, and considering the frequency it’s used in recipes, those numbers add up. In this story, I methodically examine whether vanilla extract should be a cornerstone of every recipe or saved for recipes where vanilla is meant to be the star.

A little bit about my process. I combed through Food Network’s recipe library in search of three classic candidates to bake side-by-side with and without vanilla extract. I excluded cookies with very bold flavors (like dark chocolate Brownie Cookies, pictured above), as well as recipes that are specifically called vanilla cookies (their identity is centered around vanilla, after all).

I settled on classic roll out Sugar Cookies, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and The Best Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. Then I called up my colleague to help out with the baking and tasting, and here is what we found.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

This recipe hits all the notes of a classic chocolate chip cookie. As the batter mixed up, it smelled so familiar before it was time to add any vanilla. Would the brown sugar be enough to carry that caramel-vanilla flavor? There was a difference between the two batches — depending on the bite. If it was a chip-heavy bite, then all was equal, as it was hard to nuance much with a mouthful of chocolate.

A bite with more of the plain cookie showed the differences. Without the vanilla, the butter and egg flavor took the forefront with brown sugar in the background rounding them out. With the vanilla, the cookie tasted a bit sweeter and the flavor of the brown sugar took the lead. My taste testers (a.k.a. family members), gobbled up both versions, but were split as to their preference. We straddled the line, enjoying both versions and finding the differences minimal. VERDICT: SKIPPABLE!

Sugar Cookies

These cookies bake up crisp but tender, thanks to cake flour, and they’re sturdy enough for decorations and royal icing, if you’re so inclined. They are not necessarily bold in any particular flavor. Just like, you know, a great sugar cookie. Taste testers were again split, though this time the decision wasn’t as easy.

One taster went back and forth before settling on the no vanilla version. Another taster said there was no contest and voted for the vanilla version, explaining that the two cookies didn’t even taste like the same recipe. Ultimately, the nudge went to the batch with the vanilla. The vanilla brought all the other ingredients into harmony, while the batch without? Well, they tasted like something was missing. VERDICT: USE IT!

Oatmeal Raisin

This iconic cookie was the one that really had us guessing about which version would win out. The recipe has a full tablespoon of vanilla, but also honey, cinnamon, brown sugar, raisins and oats. Would the vanilla really be essential with so many warm deep flavors already in the dough? Right away we noticed the baked cookies looked a bit different: the vanilla-less cookies were a little thicker and spread less, while the ones with vanilla flattened out more.

In the batch without vanilla, the individual flavors in the cookie really popped and it was easy to pick out the cinnamon, and especially the honey. The cookies were chewy and the raisins plump. The batch with vanilla tasted sweeter, and although the cookies and raisins were a little drier, they were tastier.

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The overall cookie flavor was more balanced, and it was clear the vanilla was the key ingredient to bring all the flavors together. Each version had admirable attributes, but ultimately, the version with the vanilla was the winner. It was the flavor glue that held everything together. VERDICT: USE IT!

With a freezer full of extra dough, we called an end to the brief but delicious experiment. Vanilla does offer more than just a bit of floral flavor. Sometimes it’s a flavor enhancer and sometimes it’s a flavor balancer.

But to be honest, unless it’s a vanilla cookie, it’s not a true dealbreaker. Especially if you’re making cookies that have lots of other flavors going on, like coconut or dark chocolate. Unsurprisingly, all the cookies were delicious, happily enjoyed and will be baked again regardless of how much vanilla is lurking in the cabinet.

What happens if you don’t use vanilla in cookies?

You’ll still get good results from these basic cookie recipes.

However, you won’t get the concentrated vanilla flavor that makes these tastes so special. That said, if you really love vanilla, we recommend using it in recipes where the other flavors compliment the vanilla most strongly. Try to avoid using vanilla when it doesn’t have to be there.

The thing about adding a little extra vanilla to your cookie recipe is that it’s not always possible or practical to measure out a specific amount. For example, some recipes call for 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of vanilla and 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of brown sugar while others call for 3 teaspoons (10mL) of both ingredients.

However you decide to go, just be sure that you’re adding the right amount of liquid (and not a little extra) so that the vanilla extract or extract blend can perform as expected. Vanilla extract is an ingredient that usually comes in a bottle and is also available in a pure form. However, for some recipes, it can be easier to use vanilla bean paste instead of either vanilla extract or pure vanilla bean. Read more about pure vs. paste here.

Is it OK to skip vanilla extract in a recipe?

You can use vanilla extract in any recipe and still get good results. Plus, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s often used in conjunction with other flavors. Pay attention to the other ingredients in a recipe before adding vanilla or an extract blend.

If you’re baking something that traditionally has a strong flavor, like a crumb cake or bread pudding, skip the vanilla so that the other flavors don’t become too masked by the sweetness of vanilla. It’s also important to note that some recipes that call for pure vanilla extract do not need additional liquid (i.e., milk).

Binding: Using vanilla in cookies can help to hold your cookie dough together. Vanilla is often used to bind a crumbly mixture together, such as banana bread. Decorating & Glossing: This is definitely a dessert that’s best served with a glaze. It’s important to achieve the same texture and shape of your dough when you’re piping a glaze over it, as if you’t want the baked item to be light and crispy (think funnel cake). When you’re using vanilla in this situation, try using an extract or cream-based extract replacement—the flavor will be strong enough so that it won’t get overpowered by the sugar in your glaze.

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What can I use if I don’t have vanilla extract for chocolate chip cookies?

If you can’t find vanilla extract, you could try other options. Try substituting with:

Chocolate : If you’re not going to use a lot of chocolate, we recommend using semi-sweet chocolate as it can stand up to the flavors in your recipe better than milk or bittersweet chocolate. Milk chocolate will be too sweet and needs to be used sparingly.

: If you’re not going to use a lot of chocolate, we recommend using semi-sweet chocolate as it can stand up to the flavors in your recipe better than milk or bittersweet chocolate. Milk chocolate will be too sweet and needs to be used sparingly. Pure extracts: Use a vanilla extract that’s made from real vanilla bean in place of the extract/cream mixture.

Pure extracts are made from non-infused alcohol, which makes them great substitutes for vanilla extract when you need to use a lot of it and don’t want too much sweetness.

Will adding vanilla make my eggs less bad for me to eat?

No and no. The amounts of added vinegar in many recipes is enough to kill any bacteria or fungi, so no it won’t make your eggs less bad for you. Think of it this way: the vinegar and leavening ingredients are what make your baked goods rise. Without them, you wouldn’t have cake or cookies.

As far as adding vanilla, there’s a good amount in some of these recipes but not enough to get you anywhere near the amount that’s considered healthy. The amount of sugar in most sugar cookies, for example, is not healthy (unless you’re trying to avoid processed sugars). And if you’re making savory cookies like a grissini or shortbread, they won’t add any sort of nutrients.

The bottom line: If you’re trying to eat healthier, skip the vanilla in these recipes. It’s not necessary and doesn’t provide any nutritional health benefits. As always, it’s important to check your recipe ingredients before you begin and adjust as needed.

Disclaimer: We’re not doctors or nutritionists. This is not medical advice; this is simply information we found on the web about products that may help you with certain health goals. Your body and choices are your own responsibility!

Why Are My Cookies Flat?

Flat cookies are a common problem and it’s usually not because of vanilla (remember, the baking soda reacts with baking powder to make it rise). Check your recipe ingredient list, especially if you’re using butter to replace some of the oil called for. Oftentimes, you need more fat than oil to maintain that creamy texture while still providing structure.

Can I Make Cookies Without Eggs?

Yes, with a bit of tweaking. We’ve tried it before as well and never gotten good results. In general, we recommend that if you’re avoiding eggs for health or dietary reasons, trying substituting with applesauce or mashed bananas instead.

If you’re planning to replace the eggs in a recipe with something like applesauce, keep in mind that it won’t work in every baked good. If you’re trying to make a cake or a donut, for example, the batter will need to be thickened with more flour than if you’re making cookies. However, it does work for some cookies. If you’re playing around with egg replacers, we recommend sticking with something that’s simple and will produce a good texture. You could also try making oatmeal or banana muffins instead of using flour or a combination of both. They are easily tweaked to make them healthier while still producing a delicious result.