Vanilla

The Best Vanilla Extract Substitute Is Probably Hiding in Your Kitchen

Lookin' at you, cake batter.

November 12, 2020
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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“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.
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Here are the rules:

  • Use a dark alcohol with a distinct personality. My go-to spirits are dark rum, bourbon, and brandy. You can use whichever brand you have on hand—no need to use something fancy, here. (If you have none of the above, you could try 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

Dark rum is an obvious choice for a vanilla extract substitute. It’s smoky-sweet, a little spicy, and loves to be paired with both rich and tart flavors (this is why piña coladas are so good!). Speaking of which, when thinking of how best to swap vanilla for booze, why not keep in mind the flavors that shine in a rum-based cocktail? Try dark rum instead of vanilla in these treats, which lean into rich coconut, warming spices, and floral fruit:

Padma Lakshmi's Clouds of Cardamom & Cashew Cookies

These buttery, crumbly cookies are made with rich ground cashews and cardamom.

Violet’s Pineapple-Coconut Cake

This super-moist, sweet cake has crushed pineapple in the batter and is coated in a sticky caramel frosting.

Mango-Lime Trifle with Brown Butter Cake

Pair zingy mango-lime puree with thick pastry cream, whipped cream, and a nutty brown butter cake—it’s a dessert fit for any season.


Swap in Bourbon

Bourbon swapped in for vanilla is another easy solution. Many actually describe vanilla as a primary flavor in the sweet spirit. Caramel, maple, chocolate, and butterscotch are other notes people pick up on in bourbon, so it would only make sense for it to shine when splashed into recipes featuring those ingredients. Ditch the vanilla and try bourbon in these desserts (you won’t be sorry):

Brown Butter Blondies

Fudgy, chocolate-stuffed blondies taste like caramel thanks to brown sugar and deeply browned butter.

Teddie's Apple Cake

This moist, cinnamon-kissed apple cake is just as welcome at breakfast with a scoop of yogurt as it is after dinner, with plenty of vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Chess Pie

Ooey-gooey chess pie gets a chocolate twist here, making it ideal for colder weather dessert tables.


Swap in Brandy

Syrupy, fruity, barely sweet brandy is one of those bottles I buy and promptly forget about. While I don’t pour myself a snifter of the stuff regularly (er, ever?) the bottle remains in the back of my liquor cabinet, just in case. One of those cases? Running out of vanilla extract. I’ll opt for a splash of brandy instead of vanilla in super-creamy desserts to cut through some of that richness. These recipes are a great place to start:

Hannah Bronfman's No Cook Chocolate Mousse, With Avocado

Don’t let the avocado factor spook you: this is the creamiest, richest chocolate mousse. Who needs the heavy cream?

Clementine Chocolate Lava Cakes

Rich, chocolate-y, olive oil-kissed lava cakes are petite, but pack a punch. Still, they couldn’t be easier to pop in the oven when you’re craving a cake.

Our Best Vanilla Ice Cream

Make this classic, egg yolk-enriched ice cream to keep in the freezer at all times.

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., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in October 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

11 Comments

Joseph N. December 2, 2020
To me, the problem is the alcohol. For health reasons, can't drink any alcoholic beverage. Conflicts with medication. What happens to the alcohol in the recipe? Will it affect the person consuming the food? Serious question to consider.
 
Jenkinsmitzi November 27, 2020
I always substitute Amaretto for vanilla. It’s less expensive and really just better
 
jibrail November 20, 2020
What about people who can’t bake with alcohol? My dad is a recovering alcoholic.
 
Smaug November 20, 2020
You could use vanilla beans whole, or scrape out the "caviar". Or use things like vanilla-infused sugar.
 
Smaug November 12, 2020
People might want to check out Stella Parks' article on Serious Eats on the subject of homemade vanilla "extracts" - "Real Talk; DIY Vanilla Extract is a Waste of Time and Money".
 
Matt 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.