Vanilla is priceless in most baking recipes, but pure vanilla extract comes with a very real price tag when you’re shopping for it.
Whether you choose to carefully lower your expenses by purchasing artificial vanilla or you splurge with pure vanilla extract, it’s important to know how long your extract is good for.
Does vanilla extract go bad? Vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf-life in terms of food safety. However, it will lose its flavor and aroma over time. Still, you should have multiple years to use your extract before you need to be concerned about its quality, as long as you store it properly.
In this article, we’ll compare pure and artificial vanilla extracts for their shelf life. We’ll also discuss storage complications and learn how to store vanilla extract to maximize its quality for a long time.
What is Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract is a key ingredient in many different baking recipes. It brings that sweet aroma and delicate flavor of vanilla to your desserts.
Pure vanilla extract is made by macerating or grinding and mashing vanilla bean pods in a solution of water and ethanol.
According to the USDA, to be deemed pure, the vanilla extract must have at least 35% alcohol content and a minimum of 100 grams of vanilla beans for every 1 liter of liquid.
The primary source of the vanilla flavor comes from a compound called vanillin. Although a vanilla bean has many other compounds that add depth and complexity to the flavor of an extract.
Artificial vanilla extract is also very popular because it’s much less expensive than pure extract. Artificial vanilla is made using synthetically produced vanillin, which is actually a by-product of wood pulp.
Because it’s synthetic and doesn’t have the other natural nutrients and flavorings on the whole bean, some people find artificial vanilla extract to be less flavorful or satisfying than pure.
Since it’s primarily used in baking with plenty of other ingredients and flavors, artificial extract makes a great, inexpensive alternative for most uses.
Can Vanilla Extract Go Bad
Pure vanilla extract is not cheap, so keeping it from going bad is a very responsible move. The great news is, however, that it’s highly unlikely that your vanilla extract will go bad.
“Does vanilla extract expire?” is a slightly different question.
Most bottles will come with a “best before” or “use by” date. This is not necessarily because your extract will go bad. It has more to do with the fact that it can lose flavor and potency over time.
Because of the specific alcohol content requirements in pure vanilla extract, it stays fresh, flavorful, and aromatic a long time.
You shouldn’t notice a decrease in the heavenly smell or a significant change in flavor for 5–10 years, at least.
Not many bakers can make a bottle of vanilla extract last for that long, anyway. So it’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself in a situation with a disappointing result.
Vanilla extract can go bad if it’s left open in the wrong environment for long periods of time. Vanilla extract doesn’t provide the environment bacteria crave and thrive in, but it’s still possible to get harmful bacteria in your extract.
If you’ve had your vanilla extract a long time and it hasn’t been in appropriate storage conditions, test it. You can smell the bottle and take a small taste sample before using it. If it smells or tastes wrong, dispose of it.
Does Imitation Vanilla Extract Go Bad
Imitation vanilla, much like pure vanilla, is unlikely to actually go bad. Again, it’s not a welcoming environment for the type of bacteria that can create a problem with food, but it is technically possible for them to grow there.
The more likely situation is that it will simply lose its power. Imitation vanilla will become less aromatic and less flavorful after about 2 years, especially in poor storage conditions.
It is important to note, however, that there is a noticeable difference between imitation or artificial vanilla and pure vanilla extract.
If you’re used to one, you may find that switching changes the experience. You may even think your vanilla has gone bad! That is usually not the case, however. They just smell and taste slightly differently.
Does Mexican Vanilla Go Bad?
At one time in history, Mexican vanilla was world-renowned for its purity. Vanilla beans originally come from Mexico, as well as other Caribbean and Central American countries.
So making extract in the native land captured the freshness and highest quality possible.
Unfortunately, the vanilla extract market in these countries was severely disturbed in the early 20th century during the Mexican Revolution. Since then, most vanilla extract exported from there is artificial.
This short and brief history lesson is shared to explain that Mexican vanilla extract can be expected to be on par with any other artificial or imitation vanilla extract, unless you can be sure it is a pure extract.
It probably won’t go bad, but it can start to degrade in quality after 2 years or so.
If you buy your Mexican vanilla extract straight from Mexico, you should know that they sometimes use an additional ingredient. Coumarin is often added to enhance the flavor.
However, coumarin can be dangerous for anyone using blood thinners, so be careful when checking the ingredients list if this is a concern for you.
How To Tell If Vanilla Extract Is Bad
As previously discussed, your vanilla extract is unlikely to go bad in an unhealthy or unsafe way.
But it can be extremely disappointing to use a vanilla extract that has lost is potency and results in baked goods without the proper vanilla essence.
When it comes to vanilla extract, your nose is always your best tool for discerning how fresh your vanilla is. If you don’t enjoy the fragrance when you open the bottle, you probably won’t be as satisfied with the effect it has on your baking.
Just keep in mind that artificial vanilla has a different aroma than pure vanilla. So if you’re used to one or the other, you may be surprised by the difference in the scent that has nothing to do with the potency.
When you’re changing from artificial to pure or the other way, it can be a good idea to familiarize yourself well with the new scent as soon as the bottle is opened. Smell it often to get accustomed to the difference.
Cloudy Vanilla Extract
Cloudy vanilla extract is usually because your vanilla has been stored in an environment where it was regularly exposed to direct light or heat.
The warmth can cause evaporation, even if the bottle seems tightly sealed, and this can turn your vanilla extract cloudy.
Still, as long as you can smell the heavenly scent of vanilla when you open the bottle it will be safe to use and should be just as effective as a non-cloudy extract.
Black Specks In Vanilla Extract
A surprising number of people inquire about black specks in vanilla extract. But it seems to be a question more associated with black specks in vanilla-flavored foods, such as vanilla bean ice cream.
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever find specks in your extract because it’s filtered very thoroughly and carefully. Any visible pieces of anything in your vanilla extract may be a sign of cross-contamination. They should not be in your extract.
However, black specks in vanilla-flavored food items are often a sign that the item was made with pure vanilla, or vanilla bean, rather than artificial flavoring.
The black specks are likely pieces of the beans or pods. They’re not only edible, they’re also packed with flavor.
This isn’t always the case. Some food manufacturers add black flakes that have nothing to do with vanilla.
They do this in an attempt to fool their customers into thinking its higher quality than it actually is. However, these black flakes shouldn’t hurt you.
Vanilla Extract Smells Like Alcohol
Pure vanilla is made using alcohol. In fact, there is a minimum volume of alcohol required to label an extract as pure.
If you have newly bottled, very fresh pure vanilla extract, it’s not surprising that it might have a slight lingering aroma of alcohol. This should fade as the extract ages, usually within a few weeks.
If the smell bothers you, a great way to fix it is to add a tiny amount of sugar to your extract. If you add 1 tablespoon of sugar per half-quart of vanilla extract, it will speed the aging process and help reduce the alcohol smell faster.
The slight smell of alcohol does not mean your vanilla extract has gone bad. It means it is pure and fresh. The alcohol, whether you can smell it or not, will burn off in the baking process if you’re cooking with vanilla extract.
Shelf-Life of Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract, regardless of variety, has an extremely long shelf life. As mentioned, it can, unfortunately, lose its beautiful aroma and strength of flavoring over time.
If it’s stored properly, pure vanilla extract should stay fresh and high quality for up to 10 years. Artificial or imitation vanilla extract will last between 2–4 years, depending on the brand and the specific manufacturing process.
How Long Does Homemade Vanilla Extract Last?
Homemade vanilla extract, if made with the appropriate amount of pure alcohol, will last the same length of time as pure vanilla extract, because that’s exactly what it is.
Pure vanilla extract, whether homemade or storebought, should maintain its quality for 5–10 years, depending on storage conditions.
Can You Get Sick From Expired Vanilla Extract?
No, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get sick from expired vanilla extract. The expiration date on the bottle is more of a recommended “use by” date. Beyond this date, the manufacturer isn’t confident that the flavor and smell of the vanilla extract will be as great as it was earlier in its life, but it is still safe to use.
What Happens If You Drink Vanilla Extract?
Can you eat vanilla extract raw and, if you do, what happens? This has become a popular question in recent years. Some have even tried drinking vanilla in hopes of getting a buzz because of the alcohol content in pure vanilla.
The alcohol in pure vanilla is very strong and can technically lead to intoxication or even alcohol poisoning if too much is ingested. It’s not pleasant to drink straight. Most won’t like the flavor enough to have much of it plain. But with the rise of the internet and the popularity of dangerous social trends, there is a small chance curious teens or kids will try it.
If you’re worried, it’s a good idea to store your vanilla extract as you would any other liquor or potentially dangerous substance. Imitation vanilla extract doesn’t usually contain alcohol, so it doesn’t pose any danger if you drink it straight.
What is the Best Imitation Vanilla?
Our favorite artificial vanilla is Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor. However, McCormick’s Culinary Clear Imitation Vanilla Extract comes in a very close 2nd place. Both options are full of flavor that makes it through the baking process admirably.
McCormick’s can be a bit more cost-effective because it’s available in 32 oz bottle – and it’s clear. Clear artificial vanilla can be a great advantage if you’re making anything that you don’t want to change the color of.
But Baker’s rich caramel color adds a feel of authenticity and will look nice in most baked goods anyway. Even though we know it’s imitation, it’s more visually convincing.
Do Vanilla Beans Go Bad?
Vanilla beans are usually sold as dry spices, which will last a long time if stored correctly. The can go moldy or dry out if you’re not careful, however, so make sure they’re stored in an airtight jar or bag. If you have a vacuum sealer or Foodsaver, you can individually seal them. They’ll last for up to 6 months. You will also want to keep your sealed packages or containers in a cool, dry space like your pantry.
Any exposure to moisture can encourage mold to grow on your beans. On the other end of the spectrum, if there is dry air constantly surrounding your beans, they can dry out and lose their creaminess. Over time, vanilla will start to lose its potency, even if your beans haven’t gone dry or moldy. It’s best to use your beans within 6 months of their purchase date.
Whether you decide to use natural or artificial vanilla, their potency and flavor is the same. Depending on what you plan to make, though, one might fit your needs better than the other. Artificial vanilla is a lot less expensive than pure vanilla and can be used in baking or cooking. Pure vanilla will add a richness and creaminess that’s great if you’re looking for something authentic to replace what you would normally use in cooking.