Baking Club

The Powerhouse Ingredient You're Almost Definitely Throwing Out

Your coffee, chocolate cake, and holiday cocktails will never be the same.

October 22, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“When I was a kid, my mom taught me to fill an "empty" chocolate syrup bottle halfway with milk, shake it, then get a bonus glass of chocolate milk. I carried that lesson with me through my life. Often I make salad dressing in a spent mustard container. Or pour a shot of tequila in the jam jar. ”
— FrugalCat

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!
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cookie
  • Maisie
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    Leslie VB
Karen Lo

Written by: Karen Lo

lunch lady


Cookie March 19, 2020
I add a couple drops into my frozen banana ice cream just before whipping it up.
Maisie December 22, 2019
I just dab whatever drops I can get behind my ears!
FrugalCat December 21, 2019
When I was a kid, my mom taught me to fill an "empty" chocolate syrup bottle halfway with milk, shake it, then get a bonus glass of chocolate milk. I carried that lesson with me through my life. Often I make salad dressing in a spent mustard container. Or pour a shot of tequila in the jam jar.
Hannah January 20, 2020
I have had tequila and ginger jam shots this way. They hit the spot on a chilly night in New England.
CassieB96 December 20, 2019
Omg I can’t believe I’ve never thought of something so simple!! I’ve done this with “empty” containers of Nutella before and made the best chocolate milk of my entire life, but never thought of carrying that over to my old extract bottles! I’m definitely going to start doing this from now on.
Leslie V. December 20, 2019
Where is the Blondie recipe to print out. I only see the video.
Heide P. December 19, 2019
I just did this with an 'empty' vanilla paste container! I filled it with vodka, let it sit for a week or so, then added it when I was making coffee liqueur - it was a game-changer. I've never tried it with other extracts, but I don't go through them as frequently, but thanks for the tip!
Snow December 19, 2019
Huh. I always rinse out the pasta sauce jar (homemade or otherwise) with wine and dump it in the sauce pot. But I never thought about doing something similar with extract bottles!
(Thanks for the giggle Wendy W)
Wendy W. December 19, 2019
Baking soda expires? Well, I'm going to pretend I never learned that.
mudd December 19, 2019
Easy to check that. Put some vinegar in a cup add a little of your baking soda. If it gets fizzy and bubbly, your baking soda is fine. If not good and fizzy bubbly, dump your baking soda down the kitchen sink drain along with some vinegar. Wait awhile and then run some hot water. Will clear out minor grease problems and smell good. Drain will smell good, especially if you have garbage disposal
Slove66 November 24, 2019
I never throw out my vanilla extract bottles. I make my own vanilla and reuse the bottles for storage.
Leslie V. December 20, 2019
I do also. Last batch was with 2 fifths of vodka. so enough for a couple of years.
Beverly B. November 24, 2019
Last few drops of vanilla go with anything —even lobster! (An old Julia Childs trick)— just to warm up the flavor. Try 1 drop first then add more to taste
MB December 19, 2019
Try a hint of vanilla in butternut squash. It's amazing. Learned that from a chef.
anne November 24, 2019
i bought this pan from you twice-using low heat..still sticks..this pan is definitely NOT non stick😢
mudd December 19, 2019
What pan? No pan is completely non-stick
Jill December 19, 2019
Is it ceramic? A Magic Eraser sponge will clean off the sticky part.
Renee F. October 26, 2019
I make my own extract by infusing Canton ginger liqueur with a few green cardamon and vanilla pods in an old airline size Canton bottle. I haven’t got to the end of the bottle since 2007/8 because I keep dropping in more Canton and vanilla. The old soused vanilla gets removed after a few years and used in whatever calls to me...
judy October 23, 2019
I would never have thought of rinsing out my vanilla bottles as she suggests. Great Idea. I have tried all kinds of vanilla, and have settled primarily on Nielson-Massey Madagascar vanilla as my go to. I buy it in 32oz bottles. Takes me about a year to use up. I have strayed some to beans and paste. I do like the paste. I also have a Mexican origin vanilla in the back of my pantry. about 2 years ago the price shot up. I went on a jag, when I noticed this and bought several bottles and the cheaper rate of about $39 per bottle. then is shot up (sick vanilla beans and shortages). I bought about 8 bottles at $79 and have been hoarding them, though I have given some away. I have never been a fan of Watkins, though I used it growing up and well into early adult hood as that was all I knew. When I began to branch out, I found that there were many other versions that were much more palatable for me. I don't care for artificial and will not use white, as I think it gives an off flavor. Taste is so much a personal preference. So, if I ever do make frosting ---whichis rare, as I do not care for them, they are tinged and never completely white-- but they are delicious. Articles like this are fun to read. Thank you.
Susan December 19, 2019
I bought one of those perpetual extra bottles with the vanilla bean & vodka. Just add either as needed. But lately I’ve switched to the Neilson Massey paste. It’s sooo good.