The older I get, the more pleasure I get out of things like actually using all the groceries I buy—remember when we found out that the average American is throwing out nearly 3,000 pounds of food per year?—and being able to recycle containers that are completely empty because they’ve been used to the last drop.
But when it comes to baking, unless you’re a professional baker or a very busy hobby baker, you probably have quite a few items in your kitchen pantry that were used once, and then more or less forgotten. How many times have you used a full container of baking soda before it expired?
Still, in the quest to be a more tidy and efficient consumer, the kind Marie Kondo would be proud of, I’m always excited to learn about new ways to use what I already have—especially when it also happens to make for a better meal.
Enter this genius bit of advice from pastry wiz and Serious Eats senior editor, Stella Parks:
It’s particularly brilliant because there’s no measuring required—although keep in mind that vanilla extract is potent stuff, so you really do want to work with “nothing but faint residue,” according to Stella—and because you’re getting extra mileage out of something you’re about to toss out.
Even if you’re not reading this from an industrial kitchen, you can take a page from Parks’ book when you’re dreaming up ways to make the most of your extract: “I used to order Watkins by the gallon in my restaurant days,” she tells Food52, "then fill it up with leftover drip-coffee at the end of the night (which would otherwise be poured down the drain by the waitstaff). Then, after an overnight soak, I'd use it to make chocolate cake the next day—the same chocolate cake from my book."
“I'd often use milk, too, then reuse that in ice cream or hot chocolate. Restaurant work let me do cool, large-batch stuff like repurpose used vanilla jugs for storing stuff like creme brûlée base.”
As for her preferred choice of extract, Parks likes to have a lot of options on hand. “I like to play the field and use a vanilla for a few months in many different (and repeated) applications before I decide one way or the other about it, so the verdict on these is still out,” says Park, “but some new-to-me bottles include Singing Dog, Sonoma Syrup Company, and Madecasse. I also have three types of Rodelle vanilla (a blend, a single origin, and the reserve), Heilala extract and paste, and Watkins, which are all familiar favorites to me. Watkins is probably my workhorse vanilla because it's sold in 8-ounce bottles, which is very efficient for my work.”
Finally you can, of course, use this same method with other extracts—with a bit of caution. “A quick rinse with rum is nice for empty almond extract bottles,” recommends Parks. “I'll also often add lemon juice to an empty lemon oil bottle. Mint extract can be quite strong, so while I may rinse it out with a bit of hot tea or milk (nice for minty cocoa), I'm very careful about doling it back out again.”
Moreover, even if you’re not dealing with the same quantities as a pro baker, Parks recommends that everyone buy their extract online, in 4-ounce to 8-ounce bottles. “Vanilla is (and should be!) expensive, so don't make that worse by paying more for less at the supermarket.”
There you have it: a sweet and useful guide to extracting every last bit of your vanilla (and whatever else) extract. Coincidentally, these ideas happen to line up perfectly with the upcoming holidays, whether you’re gearing up to dabble in some holiday rum, eggnog, hot chocolate, or my personal favorite, hot toddy.
What would you use those last drops of vanilla extract for? Tell us in the comments below!