Can Vanilla Extract Go Bad?

You’re getting ready for your next big baking project and are making sure you have all the ingredients on hand. In the cupboard, you find a half-opened bottle of vanilla extract sitting there for who-knows-how-long. The question that pops up immediately is: does vanilla extract go bad?

Fortunately, both pure and artificial vanilla extracts last a long time, so most likely the extract you have is perfectly fine.

If you would like to learn a bit about storage, shelf life, and differences between pure vanilla extract and the imitation, read on. The way you store vanilla extract is the same for both pure extract and the imitation.

You should keep it in a cool and dark place (light can affect it), away from sources of heat. The pantry or a kitchen cupboard away from the oven are the best options. If you’ve bought the extract in a plastic bottle, feel free to decant it into a glass bottle or jar if you will. As usual when it comes to liquids, make sure the extract is sealed tightly when not in use.

Shelf life is where the difference between pure vanilla extract and the imitation is quite pronounced.

Let’s start with pure vanilla extract. It’s easy to distinguish it from the imitation, as it has the word “pure” on the label and the imitation doesn’t. Also, the pure extract is much more expensive than the imitation.

Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf life and doesn’t really go bad. Please note that the extract has an alcohol base, and alcohol tends to very slowly evaporate after the first opening of the bottle. That means that after a few years you might notice that the flavor of the extract is slightly more intense.

In short, if you bought a bottle of McCormick or Nielsen Massey (or any other reputable brand for that matter) pure vanilla extract a year ago or 10 years ago, it should be perfectly fine now.

Now to the imitation vanilla extract. Besides the fact that it has less flavor than the real deal, it doesn’t keep that well. If stored properly, it shouldn’t go bad, but its quality will degrade over time. Check out the best-by date on the label, which indicates for how long the quality should remain best.

You can easily add a few months or a year to that period, but you should remember that the longer you store it, the worse its taste will be. As I’ve mentioned earlier, if you always keep the bottle of vanilla extract sealed tightly, it shouldn’t go bad. That’s true for both the pure extract and the imitation.

However, if you ever notice that there’s something wrong with the extract, like the smell is off or there is some growth on the inside of the cap, throw it away. Again, it’s unlikely to happen, but it’s always good to quickly check the extract before using. Especially if you haven’t used in a long time.

When it comes to the imitation, after a few years of storage its quality will degrade. That means that at a certain point the flavor won’t quite be there. When that happens, it’s time to throw the extract away and buy or open a new bottle.

There’s a half-full bottle of vanilla extract sitting in the cabinet in the kitchen. You needed it for baking, but for some reason, that recipe didn’t turn out as good as you expected it to. So the leftover extract sits in that cabinet for quite a few months already, and you’re starting to question if it’s still good enough to use. Can vanilla extract go bad?

Or maybe you’ve bought the pure vanilla extract instead of the synthetic imitation for the first time, and you don’t want any of it to go to waste. Hence you need to know what’s its shelf life, and what are the storage guidelines.

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Either way, this short guide has got you covered. In it, we cover everything you need to know about storage, shelf life, and spoilage of the vanilla beans extract.

For the sake of this guide, you need to know if you have the real vanilla extract or the imitation. Synthetic vanilla (the imitation) has only one organic compound, vanillin. Pure vanilla extract has many other compounds, richer flavor, and fragrance. Making it also takes a lot more time (and some vanilla beans), which makes it quite expensive. If your vanilla extract was cheap or the label doesn’t say “pure vanilla extract,” it’s most likely the imitation ([VQ]). Both types are perfectly okay to use, but you need to know what you’re dealing with.

No matter which kind of vanilla extract we’re talking about, the answer to whether or not it can go off is: probably not. Both types don’t make a good environment for bacteria to grow. That makes it unlikely that either will spoil in a way meat or dairy goes.

Nevertheless, if you open up the bottle or vial and the smell is off, or the consistency of the liquid have changed noticeably, discard it. In other words, if your senses are telling you that something is wrong with the solution, get rid of it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the flavor and smell of the pure extract and the imitation are slightly different. So if you’ve used the cheaper one your whole life and now you switched to the more expensive option, don’t get caught off guard thinking it’s bad because the smell is stronger and the taste richer.

If the extract seems to be okay, it’s safe to use. But that doesn’t necessarily mean its flavor will be good enough. That’s where the difference between the pure extract and the synthetic ones kicks in.

For vanilla extract imitation, it comes with a best-by date on the label, and its shelf life is usually between 2 to 4 years. Past that date, the solution won’t become unsafe to use, but its overall quality (taste, fragrance) will start to drop. If it drops slightly, you can probably get away with simply adding more of the extract to make up for the flavor loss. But if the extract is more than a couple of years past its date, and the vanilla taste is hardly there, it makes more sense to discard it.

When it comes to the pure vanilla extract, it fares much better over time. Thanks to its high alcohol content it easily lasts several years ([VQ]) in excellent quality, and many sources say it can pretty much last forever ([CN]). Of course, on some labels, there still will be a “best-by” date, but often that’s simply because the law requires it. So even if your extract is way past that date, it should still be quite alright, especially if you took good care of it.

Proper storage of this product of the vanilla beans extract isn’t that difficult.

When it comes to temperature, room temperature or slightly below is perfect, so either the pantry or the kitchen works. Don’t refrigerate or freeze the extract, as it might mess with its taste ([VQ]). And make sure it doesn’t sit near any sources of heat. Besides heat, the extract doesn’t particularly like light, so a dark cabinet or a spice drawer is probably the best option. Like with heat, prolonged exposure to light might cause the taste to degrade.

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In a Nutshell

Unless you keep the bottle or vial of vanilla extract unsealed, it probably won’t go bad.

Vanilla extract imitation will retain quality (or most of it) for a couple of months, maybe even years past its date.

Pure vanilla extract lasts years, and many sources say it can pretty much last indefinitely.

Keep the extract in a cool and dark place.

Can you get sick from expired vanilla extract?

I don’t think a large amount of expired vanilla extract would give you an issue. You wouldn’t get sick from the vanilla itself, only the alcohol in it, which is a solvent.

If the extract contains synthetic vanillin, that would probably be quite poisonous, but pure vanilla extract doesn’t contain this compound so that’s not an issue.

There are some people who break out in hives after using uncooked pure vanilla extract for cooking and also develop hives after using synthetic vanillin for cooking. So it’s possible to get reactions from both types (not likely though).

It’s difficult to link any particular food allergy to vanilla. If your kid has eczema, you might notice that they seem to have a reaction to vanillin. But this might be more likely due to the way synthetic vanillin interacts with skin.

Then again, in my experience cooking with vanilla extract, I have never felt sick after using it or seeing others get sick from it. However, for everyone’s safety we should probably just steer clear of any synthetic vanilla extract until further research points to a safer alternative.

What’s the best way on how to store my vanilla extract?

The best way to store your vanilla is by keeping it sealed in an airtight container in a cool dark place. The airtight container should be transparent and have a lid to avoid light exposure.

I usually just leave the vanilla in its original container especially if I am going to use it soon. The original container can be used for years once you have the vanilla extract bottles labelled.

Also it is best that you put an expiration date on your extract. You can use this as a guideline when you buy vanilla extract so that when the time comes, you will know how long you have before your extract expires and will need to get more.

Does vanilla really expire?

Pure vanilla extract does not expire. However, most extract bottles have a “best by” date as is required by law (and lacks the pure vanilla name). If you continue to use the extract past this “best by” date, you may notice a reduction in flavor or aroma, but will certainly not be in any danger of becoming sick from it.

Where can I find pure vanilla extract?

Often in supermarkets or drugstores one can buy pure vanilla extract as well as imitation vanilla. In case of a demand for pure vanilla not every supermarket has it available. So try to get it on internet as some webshops offer free shipping and this way you don’t have to pay online retailing fee (approx. 10%).

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Can I make my own extract?

Yes, it is possible to make your own pure vanilla extract. It is not only possible to make it from pure vanilla beans but also from other fruits such as vanilla pod. This is possible because pure vanilla extract does not contain any solvent in it which would be needed for extraction. If you decide to use another source for extraction you will find some instructions on the internet but I will give here the generic instructions for DIY extraction of any fruit flavour you may want from the internet.

How much vanilla extract should I buy?

It depends on so many factors! Most people will tell you to get the biggest bottle they have, but that’s not always the right thing to do. If your vanilla extract has a “best by” date on it, then you should be ok to use it for the time that’s left before that date. However, if you don’t plan on using up the vanilla extract in under 3 years, than begin to think about buying a smaller bottle of it.

Some people buy their pure vanilla extract in large amounts at a time because of the savings they receive by doing so. But this doesn’t always work out well because of storage issues and other reasons. So, if cost is not your primary issue, I suggest trying to get a smaller bottle of it at first, and then buy more when needed.

How do you know if vanilla is bad?

If it smells bad, it probably is. If the vanilla extract doesn’t smell like vanilla, it should still be ok to use. If you can’t differentiate between the smell of good and bad extract, then try a small amount on a dish and wait to see if it doesn’t affect that dish negatively.

How do I tell if my pure vanilla extract has expired?

Since pure vanilla extract does not contain any toxic or dangerous chemicals in it and is only made of refined vanilla beans with several years of quality control under them, the scent (or lack thereof) shouldn’t be an indicator that anything is wrong with the extract.

Can vanilla extract grow mold?

Mold is only possible if it has a source of water to grow in. There should be no moisture of any kind around the extract, and the bottle should be always tightly sealed. If you do often have mold issues, your vanilla extract might be to blame. Try to make sure that the mold is not coming from your vanilla extract or in the product you are making with it.

Can vanilla extract go bad?

Vanilla extract does not go bad like a regular food does, but it does start to lose its aroma and flavor after getting old. You should look for a “best by” date on your bottle of vanilla extract. This could be the time period when it loses its taste just a little bit. If you ever find that your extract is changing in smell or taste, then there is probably something wrong with it and you should consider buying a new bottle.

How do I know if my pure vanilla extract has expired?

Pure vanilla extract does not expire but most of the bottles have a best by date as is required by law (and lacks the pure vanilla name). If you use your extract after this time goes past, you may notice that the flavor and aroma seems to be less intense. But this won’t make you sick from it.

There’s no sugar in vanilla extract yet it is one of the ingredients that you can use in your baking. It is safe to use but you should always have pure vanilla extract and not imitation vanilla. The best way on how to store it is by keeping it sealed in an airtight container in a cool dark place such as a cabinet or pantry. The airtight container should be transparent and have a lid to avoid light exposure. When you buy pure vanilla extract get the smallest bottle first, then when needed buy more from the same brand.