The Best Vanilla Extract Substitute Is Probably Hiding in Your Kitchen

Lookin' at you, cake batter.

July 28, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

By now, you’ve probably been told once or twice to make your own vanilla extract. (One of those times may or may not have been by us.) Recipes tell you how easy-breezy it is to DIY the solution, which is essentially just vanilla pods soaked in alcohol. Just buy vanilla beans, split down the center, stuff in a jar, drown in booze (most people use vodka; bourbon is fair game, too).

But what if I told you that I have an even easier method for homemade extract: You just, well, skip the vanilla.

Hear me out. American baking has its chosen ingredients: There’s cinnamon, which shows up everywhere (even when it’s not invited). And vanilla, which is so overworked and ubiquitous that many equate it with “plain”—the absence, versus the addition, of a flavor. So unfair to vanilla. Often, it shines on its own accord (these recipes will convince you!). Other times, it's there by default—a wee teaspoon, just because. That's when you should let bourbon sneak in.

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Maybe you don't even notice. Maybe you like it even more!

What’s more: Most vanilla extract is pricey. (Eater did a great deep dive on the beans’ price spike following a cyclone in Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of the ingredient.) You know how buying in bulk saves you money? Go into your kitchen and find the vanilla extract. Now find the bourbon. Which bottle is bigger? Seems silly, right? The price difference does, too: Most vanilla extract you’ll find in a supermarket costs between $2.50 and $6 per ounce. A mid-shelf bourbon, on the other hand, would cost less than a $1 per ounce.

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Top Comment:
“Bourbon is not involved - in case you're thinking of bourbon vanilla, that's named for the region it was from, not for the alcohol. ”
— Ann S.

Here are the rules:

  • Use a dark alcohol with a distinct personality. My go-to spirits are dark rum and bourbon. You can use whichever brand you have on hand—no need to use something fancy, here. (If you have neither, you could try brandy, almond extract, or maple syrup, too.)
  • Simply swap out the vanilla extract and replace with 1 to 2 times that amount in alcohol. Example: If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, replace with 1 to 2 teaspoons dark rum. (If you go the almond extract route, halve the amount of vanilla—so for 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, swap in 1/2 teaspoon almond extract.)

And that's it! Now give it a whirl. Here are some recipes and the alcohols you can sub in for vanilla extract. Even better than the original? You tell me.

Swap in Dark Rum

Swap in Bourbon

Have you ever tried this trick before? Let us know in the comments below!
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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Matt H. July 28, 2018
The reason bourbon tastes similar, is because it's barrel aged. The alcohol picks up the vanillin compounds from the wood. Bourbon vanilla is something completely different, however, as it comes from the Ile Bourbon (now Réunion).
FrugalCat January 20, 2018
I've been using Myers rum for vanilla for ages!
Ann S. January 19, 2018
You are aware that most vanilla is made with ethanol or something similar to vodka. Bourbon is not involved - in case you're thinking of bourbon vanilla, that's named for the region it was from, not for the alcohol.
Cynthia W. January 19, 2018
I make my vanilla with Jim Beam...about 15 bourbon beans and 5 tahitian beans to a 1.75 litre bottle. Perfect melding of extract and alcohol substitution.
Meg January 19, 2018
I’ve got vanilla extract made from beans and a some 10 year old Mt Gay rum I brought back from Barbados. So good! I have a friend who swears by making her own vanilla with Scotch.
Nikolaos T. June 19, 2018
You make a good point. I cleaned the measuring spoon with my mouth and it did have a string resemblance to vodka more so than a rum flavor.