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The Role Of Vanilla In Baking (And How To Replace It)

What’s the deal with vanilla? Why is vanilla so important in baking? What are vanilla substitutions? To answer these questions, I reached out to a few people that know a thing or two about baking.


I started local and got in touch with Toronto’s Prairie Girl Bakery. Here’s what Jean Blacklock, the Owner and President had to say:

In some recipes, pure vanilla extract adds the subtle and delicious flavour of vanilla that is easy to taste. It also enhances the flavour of other ingredients in more complex recipes. In a chocolate cake, for example, you don’t taste the vanilla but without it the cake would not be as flavourful.

Vanilla substitutions don’t work, in our view. Given the recent vanilla bean scarcity and resulting price increase, we have had several vanilla-related discussions at PGB, but we have never considered using the artificial extract. It has a chemical taste that is definitely not appropriate for high quality, all natural baking.

New York

Then, I took it to the Big Apple and contacted Magnolia Bakery. You know this bakery and their cupcakes because they both made a cameo in Sex in the City, (season 3, episode 5, entitled No Ifs, Ands, Or Butts.) Below is the response from the Chief Baking Officer, Bobbie Lloyd:

Vanilla is like salt; your baked goods can taste flat without it. Chocolate is especially enhanced by the addition of vanilla. When my son was about two years old he was watching me make a vanilla bundt cake. As I placed the batter into the cake pan he tasted it and said ‘Mommy, you forgot the vanilla!’ He was correct. The batter had no oomph, no lift, no life.

Personally, I don’t think there are any substitutes for real vanilla. If a recipe calls for vanilla, you should use it! There are different origins of vanilla with very distinct flavors. Typically in the US, we use Madagascar vanilla which has a deep, rich flavor. At Magnolia Bakery we use Madagascar vanilla.


Lastly, I took the exact same questions to Scandinavia and posed them to a Pastry Chef of a 2-Michelin Star restaurant in Stockholm called Oaxen Krog. Chef John Demetrios’ offers a slightly different take as expected, since the role of a pastry chef allows for more creativity, intricacy and experimentation.

I like to think of vanilla as a spice that enhances sweetness — the way salt brings out the best of savoury ingredients. Vanilla adds aroma in baked treats as well as custards and creams. I also think it compliments the flavours of eggs and sugar incredibly. Many chocolate producers add vanilla to their finish products, purely to give a more rounded feel on the palette.

A favourite vanilla substitute of mine is tonka beans. Tonka beans bring the same beautiful vanilla notes as well as a nuttiness. Now that I work in Sweden, we forage a wild herb called woodruff which offers the same characteristics as tonka beans and vanilla. At home I would gladly substitute vanilla for honey or a pinch of cinnamon.

So now we know that the role of vanilla, like salt, wakes up other flavours and pushes them forward.

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Vanilla extract breakdown:

The FDA says that in order for vanilla extract to be labeled pure, it needs to contain 35% alcohol. And like everything else, the better the vanilla, the more expensive the price, as the process to grow, harvest and turn it into extract gets more labour intensive.

What is imitation vanilla extract made out of

Artificial (or imitation) vanilla extract is made with a synthetic vanilla flavour called vanillin. The fake stuff has a strong vanilla flavour and is made cheaply in a lab. Business Insider says “Today, over 95% of vanilla flavoring used in foods, from cereal to ice cream, comes from vanillin.”

Pure vanilla extract is made up of three pronounceable ingredients: vanilla beans, alcohol and water.

Does it really make a difference whether I use pure vs. imitation vanilla extract in baking

We already know how two commercial bakeries and a restaurant pastry chef feel about this answer, now you’ll hear from a homebaker –myself.

Short answer: F*ck yes!

Long answer: It depends on what you’re baking.

I’ve used both the fake and the real stuff. When you’re baking something with strong flavours, you can’t tell the difference between imitation and pure vanilla extract. However, if you’re baking something where the vanilla flavour is the star of the show, for example a vanilla pound cake, without hesitation I would definitely opt for pure vanilla extract. Especially, since it’s not a burden to find at the grocery store. The pure vanilla extract sits right beside the imitation one. It’s simply a matter of reading the label and paying more for quality.

Both Prairie Girl and Magnolia Bakery agree that when they’re making a vanilla bean icing or cake, they prefer to use the bean over the extract to show off little specks of vanilla bean, as it looks pretty and tastes legit.

What do I do if I run out of vanilla extract

Here are my recommendations. If you’re looking for a neutral, equal amount substitution, maple syrup, bourbon or brandy work well.

Bourbon and brandy make good substitutions because these alcohols are aged in oak barrels and oak contains vanillin (a strong vanilla flavour.) Maple syrup works because it contains vanillin when heated.

Can I make my own vanilla extract

Martha Stewart and I believe you can. Here’s her recipe in her words:

Homemade Vanilla Extract

The taste of vanilla is far from plain, and a gift of homemade vanilla extract will be treasured, especially by someone who loves to bake. It’s a very simple project.

1. Deposit two split vanilla beans in a glass bottle or jar.

2. Add a cup of unflavored vodka. (Use the very best vodka you can find.)

3. Cap and store in a dark, cool place. Shake the bottle gently every couple weeks. After about two months, the clear vodka will turn a nice deep brown, and you’ll have your very own homemade vanilla extract.

4. Clean and sterilize several small bottles with screw-on lids, and fill with the homemade extract. Add a label, tie on a ribbon, and you’ll have a beautiful little gift to give.

Does vanilla make a difference in baking?

A bake with vanilla and you’ll know.

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What ever happened to the days when we used real vanilla extract? When our desserts were practically gourmet, made with care and known for their subtle elegance? Learning how to add a pinch of salt or a swipe of cinnamon changed everything. We took the time to think of how other ingredients might react, or took the time to learn how to make home-made vanilla extract.

When we worry about whether our batter is vanilla enough, or if our cake is too sweet without adding flavour, it’s easy to forget that true baking is a creative act based on judgement calls and experience.

It’s easy to forget that these are the qualities that make a good baker.

That it’s okay — and more than okay– to take the time to make vanilla extract, even if we’re just baking dinner. That everything tastes better when vanilla is involved.

As a blogger, I want you to know that I don’t accept sponsored posts or advertorials without clearly labeling them as such. You can read my disclosure policy here. This post doesn’t contain any affiliate links or product placement and was not made in partnership with any brand or restaurant mentioned in this piece.

Can I skip vanilla in baking?


Despite what you’ve seen in the television, it’s possible to bake without vanilla extract and with pure vanilla beans. As Laura from Healthy Living Wellness explains, “Vanilla is just one spice out of many when it comes to baking.” To make your own vanilla extract, she recommends split vanilla beans — not imitation — for a stronger flavour. She writes: “It takes four beans to make one ounce of extract — so if you’re using fresh beans, you can freeze the rest to make more next time.” And then there’s Jacqueline from What’s Cooking Goody, who has a great recipe for homemade all-purpose vanilla extract that uses healthy ingredients and real vanilla beans (no imitation here).

*This post was originally published in 2013. Click here to read about how to make vanilla extract.

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Why do recipes call for vanilla extract?

This is a question I get asked all the time. Is there a substitute for vanilla extract? What’s the difference between imitation and pure vanilla extract? And, if you don’t have any vanilla extract in your baking cabinet, can you bake with other things like maple syrup, maple sugar or vanilla beans instead?

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To answer this question, I consulted with a few experts including Prairie Girl Acres’ Amanda Grant, Magnolia Bakery’s Jacqueline Hooper and Pure Vanilla Extract Company proprietor Amy Rogers. Here is what they agreed to share about why recipes call for vanilla extract or pure vanilla bean instead of these alternatives.

According to everyone I spoke with, the answer is simple: if your recipe calls for it. If you’re okay with using another ingredient – like vanilla beans or maple syrup – then do it. But we must remember that this type of baking isn’t baking at all, but baking-inspired work inspired by someone else’s dish. We may call our cookies ‘French’, but they’re not real French macarons (yet). We may try to replicate a layered cake or ooey gooey butter cake, but we can’t even come close to the result.

What happens if you forgot to add vanilla to a cake?

I love Laura from Healthy Living Wellness’s answer to this question. If you forget to add vanilla to a cake or muffins, she writes, “use the best quality cocoa powder that you can find.” This works because cocoa powder (as any barista will tell you) is the bitter cousin of vanilla bean. It’ll add a rich, creamy texture and chocolate flavour that’s sure to please everyone at your next dinner party.

Is there a substitute for vanilla extract?

Yes. Unlike margarine or light butter, you may use another liquid fat in place of butter. Oil or melted margarine will often produce a rich and moist cake. See above for the ultimate recipe for vanilla extract. Other options include pure vanilla extract, pure vanilla paste, pure vanilla bean (such as SoVanilla), maple syrup and maple sugar (see below).

What is the difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation?

Pure vanilla extract is made from actual vanilla beans. It may be sweetened with corn syrup and blended with alcohol , but it’s made using real ingredients.

Imitation vanilla, like McCormicks Imitation Vanilla Extract, is made from a blend of chemicals and solvents. It has been known to cause allergic reactions and has a harsher (and less favourable) flavour. Many foodies and bakers will avoid this type of vanilla altogether.

Is there a recipe for real vanilla extract?

Yes! See above for instructions on how to make your own vanilla extract at home using a split vanilla bean. Make sure you sterilize the bottles before use.

How much is a vanilla bean?

A “vanilla bean” is actually a pod containing thousands of small vanilla seeds. The seeds are extracted from the pod, dried, and then sold to people who want to buy vanilla extract. Vanilla beans are expensive because they are labour intensive. They must be grown in tropical or subtropical areas because the pods need to be cured in order to become plump and fragrant when they are picked. The curing process takes around 6-8 months, depending on the weather, so all true vanilla is quite expensive.

A lot of recipes are really fussy. They recommend using real vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract, but they don’t tell you how to actually do it (unless you’re lucky and the recipe is published by a blogger with a passion for all things vanilla). I’ve taken the time, as have many others, to figure out how to make my own at home. Because who doesn’t want to spend more money on something that makes your kitchen smell like heaven?