Chances are, you already know that vanilla extract is made by soaking beans in alcohol. And this “vanilla essence” is just pure vanilla extract. But it could be argued that the term “vanilla essence” is misleading, because it could give consumers the idea that this product has some sort of unique properties. The main thing to remember here is to always read the ingredients list so you know what you’re getting before you buy!
The only difference between these two products appears to be how they are labeled, but since they’re both made from extracting vanilla pods with alcohol, they should essentially be identical in all other regards. So, to reiterate, vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans and alcohol. Vanilla essence is simply pure vanilla extract that’s labeled differently.
As far as I know, “vanilla essence” isn’t a new product. The term has been used since at least the 1930s, when it was listed on an early FDA food labeling guide called “Food Labels and Instructions to Consumers”. It was also listed on an early Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reference book called “Labeling of Foods – How to use” that was published in 1969. So the term has been around for a while!
Can you substitute vanilla essence for vanilla extract?
The short answer is yes, you can. But the reason I call it “the short answer” is because there really isn’t a simple rule of thumb when it comes to choosing between vanilla extract and vanilla essence. Substituting one for another just depends on your personal taste preferences. Some people will prefer one over the other, while others will like them both equally well.
If you’re interested in trying out vanilla essence or extract, you should probably first read this article about how to use vanilla extract. (In it, I note that vanilla extract and pure vanilla extract have a very similar flavor and scent to me. And you can use them interchangeably in different recipes.) If you don’t mind the extra work of making your own, then you can skip that article and just read this one instead.
But if you’re looking for a ready-made substitute: It’s important to understand that there are three main ways to make vanilla extract or essence at home: infusing the beans with alcohol (for months), steeping pods in alcohol for an hour, or soaking pods for 1-3 days at room temperature. The long-infusing method will give you the most flavorful product, and the short-steeping method will give you a flavor that’s more similar to vanilla extract.
I’ve only tried making vanilla essence using the short steeping time. In this case, the pods are steeped in vodka for 1-3 days at room temperature and then strained out. This method is described in greater detail on this page from Wikipedia and it’s also how I made my own vanilla essence. The page on Wikipedia doesn’t give an exact amount of time for steeping, but does indicate that one hour is about right for 12 ounces of vodka (which works out to 160 proof). So when using vanilla essence, you can either use vanilla extract or you can substitute with a 1:1 ratio of vanilla extract to plain vodka. If a recipe calls for more than this, then I’d recommend going with straight vanilla extract. And if a recipe only calls for 1 ounce of pure vanilla extract, then using it in place of the liquid in that recipe wouldn’t really add much flavor.
Another way to make essence at home is to simply pour boiling water over fresh whole pods (or use pods that have been soaked in hot water for one hour). The beans will infuse into the water and then settle to the bottom of the container as they cool. Strain out the beans and you’ll have vanilla essence!
This method can be more finicky than the other two, but I’ve never had a problem with it. I just make sure not to use too much water when adding water and beans to the container so that all of the pods come into contact with the water. You could also try using frozen whole pods if you don’t have any fresh ones. That might get everything in there more quickly, but it might also cause you to end up with an incomplete extraction, which will result in a very weak-tasting product.
However, none of this is really necessary if you just want a simple vanilla extract or one teaspoon of vanilla essence for your recipes. The instructions here are identical to the instructions that I use for making vanilla extract. Just follow them exactly as written.
If you do want to make your own vanilla essence, don’t worry! These instructions are very simple and will guide you through everything you need to know: how to make vanilla essence, how much of it you’ll need and how to use it in a recipe (and where not to use it). If you’re only interested in vanilla essence for baking, then you can also just skip to the section about baking with vanilla essence.
Note: This is my first attempt at writing instructions like this, so please let me know if anything is unclear or if there’s anything I should add or change.
What is vanilla essence?
Vanilla essence and vanilla extract are basically the same thing. Vanilla essence is made by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol for 1-3 days and then straining out the beans. Vanilla extract is made by soaking the beans in alcohol for months. These two processes produce vanilla extract and vanilla essence that have similar flavor and aroma components. They’re basically just different ways of making vanilla extract.
What is vanilla extract?
Vanilla extract is made by extracting the essential oils from vanilla beans with a solvent (such as alcohol) over time. This is done because the oils from vanillin-containing plants are insoluble in water, so they won’t infuse into other liquids on their own. So to make vanilla extract, you need to use a solvent that will dissolve vanillin molecules, such as alcohol or glycerin. This extraction process takes a while, so vanilla extract is sometimes available commercially. The commercial type of vanilla extract usually has more flavor and aroma than the homemade kind.
I’ve tried making my own vanilla extract with various alcoholic solvents. I’ve had good results from using vodka and ethanol (brand name: Everclear) and bad results from using wine (brand name: Ruby Red). And I also found that adding glycerin to my recipe for homemade vanilla extract made for a very different-tasting product. That’s why I avoid using glycerin in my recipes now.
My solution was to just make a fairly plain vanilla extract using the vodka purification method (described above). This is what I use in my own baked goods, so that I can fall back on it for recipes like pumpkin pie or chocolate chip cookies that call for vanilla extract. If you’re interested in making your own homemade vanilla extract, then I highly recommend the process outlined in this article from the Baking Steel website: How to Make Vanilla Extract at Home.
How do you store vanilla extract (or vanilla essence)?
The easiest way to store your vanilla extract is to simply leave it in the small, decorative glass jar that it comes in. I’ve also read that you should store your extract in a bottle with a tight stopper or lid. I’ve found that storing it in its original container works just fine. And if you’re using a glass pint container, then you can easily make your own smaller size bottle using a twist-off cap (which can be removed without the use of any tools).
If you need to save some money and don’t have many recipes that call for vanilla extract, then I think that using an empty liquor bottle might work nicely as well. Just pour in some good-quality vodka of your choice and then use a piece of tape to seal it up. Just make sure you don’t store them in the refrigerator as that can cause problems with the alcohol evaporating out and getting on other foods in your fridge.
How do you use vanilla essence?
You can use vanilla essence just like you would vanilla extract. For baking and cooking, I usually just add two or three drops of vanilla essence per cup of flour or sugar (or whatever other dry ingredient I’m using) to get the same flavor as adding one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. With liquid ingredients like milk, water, beer or wine, I always add about four drops (or more if needed). I also use the vanilla essence in flavored coffee and tea, so if you’re going to drink your coffee or tea without sugar or milk, then you might want to consider adding a few drops of vanilla essence to it.
Vanilla essence also works well in baked goods like cupcakes and cookies where it’s not totally necessary to use real vanilla extract for flavor. If you’re just making one cupcake for a friend, then I would definitely say to use the vanilla extract option. But if you want to make an entire batch of cupcakes for a birthday party (or something similar), then using vanilla essence probably won’t change how they taste that much anyway.
It’s not hard to make vanilla extract or vanilla essence at home. And if you’re making it for bread, cookies or other baked goods, then I think that an already flavored recipe such as this one will result in a better-tasting product than one made from scratch. If you’re interested in making your own vanilla extract and/or vanilla essence and have any questions about making them yourself, then leave a comment below!