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The Best Substitutes For Vanilla Extract In Cookies

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The mere whiff of vanilla can send a person into a nostalgic, frenzied baking mode. This iconic bean is used in everything from ice cream to cheesecake and, of course, cookies.

If you get the urge to bake and can’t find a drop of vanilla extract anywhere in your home, all is not lost.

What is the best substitute for vanilla extract in cookies? Another form of vanilla, such as vanilla beans, vanilla bean paste, or vanilla powder. Failing a true vanilla substitute, you can also try artificial vanilla essence, maple syrup, honey, an alternative flavored extract, liquor, or spice if you’re in a pinch.

Each of these substitutions will add something original to your recipe and, depending on the type of cookies you’re baking, some may work better than others. This article will look at the best substitutes for a variety of cookies so that you can feel confident replacing the vanilla extract in any recipe.

What is Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract, of the purest variety, is made simply from vanilla beans and alcohol. The beans are soaked long enough to extract their flavor into the alcohol which can then be used in your baking. 

It’s worth noting that if you’re not a very discerning baker, chances are you’ve been buying artificial vanilla for years without really noticing. It’s hugely common in baking and provides mostly the same results because at least half the power of vanilla is in the aroma. 

However, if you have a finely tuned palette, you will notice a difference when you either make your own vanilla extract or buy a high-quality, real vanilla option.

Pure Vanilla Substitution Options

Whole vanilla beans have very intense flavors and are one of the most expensive spices on earth, coming in 2nd place to saffron.

Since it has such a powerful flavor, however, it’s generally affordable to most people in small quantities, though not nearly as inexpensive as many other extracts or the artificial variety.

If you get your hands on a whole bean, slice the pod open lengthwise to get at the sticky insides. ½ a bean will substitute for 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

You can also save the pod, placing it in a jar of sugar to create vanilla scented sugar.

Vanilla bean paste is a thick paste made from blending the gooey insides of the vanilla beans with vanilla extract. It can be hard to find, but it’s rich and out-of-this-world delicious and can be substituted in exact measurements for vanilla extract.

Vanilla bean powder is the purest form of vanilla next to the bean itself. It’s made simply from drying the bean and grinding it into a powder. A little goes a long way, so use half the amount of extract called for in the recipe.

How To Make Vanilla Extract

Before we dive into non-vanilla vanilla extract substitutes, you might be interested to know that if you have vanilla beans or even vanilla bean paste, and a bottle of vodka, you could whip up a batch of your own homemade vanilla extract.

It’s not an instant solution, but it’s something that you can keep on hand if you happen to have a few extra vanilla beans that you don’t know what to do with.

Vanilla extract is made simply by soaking the beans in alcohol. Vodka is most commonly used for at-home brewing because it lets the flavor of the vanilla shine through with little contamination. You can use rum or bourbon if that’s what you have, but it will create a mixed extract flavor.

Here’s how:

  • In a small mason or Wyck jar, drop in 3 vanilla beans that you’ve split open.
  • Pour over 1 cup of the alcohol of your choice. This will need to steep in a cool, dry location well covered for about a month before the flavor is powerful enough to be used as an extract.
  • All you have to do during this time is give the jar a shake every week or so.

If you’re in a rush, uncomfortable making an extract with your own vodka, or simply don’t have any useable alcohol, we can also show you how to make vanilla extract without alcohol. Well, it’s more of a vanilla syrup really. 

Here’s how:

  • Take a vanilla bean, split it open, and scrape out the inside, sticky material.
  • Add it to a simple syrup of sugar and water and simmer for 15 minutes.

This can be used immediately in exact measurements for vanilla extract in any recipe.

Is Vanilla Extract Necessary?

Vanilla extract isn’t always necessary in a recipe, though it almost always adds a depth of flavor and aromatic sweetness that will be missed. In savory recipes, we use salt to bring out the flavors of our other ingredients. In baking, we use vanilla.

Baking is much more of a scientific process than cooking, however, so you may have a history of deflated souffle, bready cakes, or cakey bread, simply because you didn’t measure something exact. 

Unless it’s being used in something like vanilla ice cream where it’s the star of the dish, the vanilla extract doesn’t have a structural role in baking, compared to something like baking soda, for example. 

This makes it much easier to substitute for a similar effect and provides plenty of effective options for you to experiment with. 

Best Vanilla Extract Substitute for Flavor Overall

If the flavor is what you’re after, the absolute best solution to substituting vanilla extract is to use an alternative form of vanilla, such as the bean, bean paste, or vanilla powder. 

If your reason for not using vanilla extract also prohibits you from using a true vanilla substitute – most likely the exorbitant price of the sweet spice – then the best for flavor would be to substitute with artificial vanillin, vanilla flavor or vanilla essence.

This is the most obvious substitute, but if you’re searching the internet for a vanilla extract substitute, you probably don’t have artificial vanilla either.

The Best Vanilla Extract Substitute for Cookies

Overall, the best solution to substituting vanilla extract depends on what you’re baking.

Some of the most common substitutions are listed in the chart below, and then we’ll go on to suggest which option to choose for different cookies that you’re baking.

Substitute Per 1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract Best Application
Vanilla Bean ½ bean A full flavor, all-natural substitution for vanilla extract, but without the liquid, so you may need to adjust your recipe the tiniest bit
Vanilla Bean Paste 1 teaspoon Richest possible vanilla flavor, though works best substituted in exact measurements
Vanilla Powder ½ teaspoon Pure, unadulterated flavor and aroma, but with no liquid, so adjust the recipe as needed, if necessary
Vanilla Essense 2 teaspoons A direct flavor replacement, though some people can detect a bitter, chemical aftertaste and essence isn’t nearly as potent as an extract
Maple Syrup 1 teaspoon Maple syrup is most commonly used to substitute vanilla extract overall because it has a very subtle yet recognizable flavor that complements nearly all sweets. Use 100% pure for best results.
Honey 1 teaspoon Honey adds aroma similar to vanilla, however, it adds a lot more sweetness so consider reducing the sugar in the recipe, to taste
Alternative Flavored Extract ½ – 1 teaspoon Almond, berry, butterscotch, or even citrus extracts will add aroma and a hint of flavor, though some will complement the other ingredients in certain recipes better than others
Liquor 2 teaspoons Rum, brandy, bourbon, or any dark liquor works great to bring out certain flavors
Spices ½ teaspoon Cinamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice or cloves all bring a depth of flavor and aromatic drama to your cookies with no extra liquid

Using Vanilla Extract in Cookies

In some baking, vanilla can make or break the subtlety of the dessert. In cookies, it’s much less noticeable and therefore you have a lot more wiggle room with viable substitutions.

Even professional bakers tend to agree that whatever the star of the cookie is, be it chocolate, ginger, peanut butter, or humble sugar, they will overpower even high-quality vanilla, so substituting or even simply eliminating it is certain cases will not noticeably affect the batch. 

Depending on that star flavor, finding a substitute to complement and enhance it is more important than simply adding vanilla extract out of habit.

Substitute for Vanilla Extract in Chocolate Chip Cookies

In chocolate chip cookies, chocolate is obviously the focal flavor.

While the scent of vanilla might draw you in, chocolate tastes great on or in anything, so your options here are limitless, though our favorites are an orange extract or a dark bourbon.

If you’d rather not compete with the chocolate in your cookies, try a more mild-mannered almond or butterscotch extract instead, using half the amount that is called for in the recipe.

Vanilla Extract Substitute in Sugar Cookies

Even though many people don’t realize it, the signature “sugar” flavor in sugar cookies is usually achieved with vanilla extract.

You have two choices in this case:

  1. Try honey or maple syrup and hope that your cookie monsters don’t notice the subtle difference between flavors that are so familiar, or
  2. Make a statement by using citrus extract or specific spices, such as ginger or cinnamon.

Substitute for Vanilla Extract in Peanut Butter Cookies

Peanut butter cookies can be as simple as peanut butter + sugar + egg = cookie, much to the surprise and delight of our test kitchen.

However, such simple peanut butter cookies can lose their edge over time.

Maple syrup or honey is the perfect substitute for vanilla extract in this case and, many would argue, even a better solution.

If you don’t like your cookies too sweet however you may want to use less sugar than the recipe calls for to compensate for the added sweetness of the syrup or honey.

Vanilla Extract Substitute for Shortbread Cookies

The most important ingredient in shortbread cookies is the butter, but the vanilla is there to add its support to the flavor as well.

The best solution, in this case, is to call attention to the substitute, using a lemon or almond extract to boldly make a flavor contribution.

If you’re a stickler for tradition, swapping the extract for liquor will get you a closer outcome.

Substitute Vanilla Extract in Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Similar to peanut butter cookies, not all recipes of this variety will call for vanilla extract, but it does enhance the recipe to the level of a pro baker.

Oatmeal and raisins both pair perfectly with nuts of any kind, so using an almond extract is perfect for this occasion.

Thinking about it a little more, you can’t go wrong with any of the above suggestions – maple syrup, honey, spices, and liquors would all taste amazing in an oatmeal cookie.

Use an oatmeal cookie recipe to test out flavors if you’re still nervous about substitutions.

Related Questions

What is a good substitute for vanilla extract in frosting?

When you’re creating a frosting, texture, and consistency is important. If your recipe calls for vanilla extract and you don’t have any, the best substitution is going to be another extract or liquor.

This will make sure that the liquid balance doesn’t change and your frosting acts as it’s supposed to. It may change the flavor subtly, however.

You can make a statement with a bold extract like berry or coconut, or you can opt for a liquor, added at the same measurements as your vanilla extract, and have a milder flavor.

What can I use to substitute for vanilla extract in banana bread?

Banana bread is all about the banana flavor, so you can simply eliminate the vanilla extract and notice little difference to your recipe if any.

If you’re very concerned, it would be best to use a different flavored extract, if you have one, as opposed to maple syrup or honey, which may slightly alter the consistency of your bread.

A liquor would also work well and add a lovely aroma and, don’t worry, the alcohol will bake off and your bread will still be kid-friendly.

Is there a substitute for vanilla extract in cheesecake?

For cheesecake, vanilla’s job is mainly to intensify the sweetness factor. This can be achieved using any of the above-mentioned substitutes for a slightly different hint of flavor to your cheesecake.

Maple syrup or honey will be the sweetest, whereas another extract or liquor option will just add depth to the flavor.

Depending on your topping of choice a butter extract would create a very silky, buttery cheesecake. 

What can I use to substitute for vanilla extract in ice cream?

Ice cream can be almost any flavor your imagination can concoct, but when it comes to pure vanilla ice cream, the only substitute for vanilla extract is some other form of vanilla.

It’s all about the flavor here and anything else will make an ice cream that is anything but vanilla. You can use vanilla flavor or essence, vanilla bean, or vanilla paste, but it has to be vanilla.

If you want to make vanilla ice cream at home, read this article: Best Vanilla Extract For Ice Cream

Can I make French toast without vanilla extract?

French toast was originally invented simply as a way to use up stale bread and it was made with whatever sweet and spicy ingredients were on hand at the time.

Over time it has become more of a treat than a breakfast of necessity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be traditional and simply use what you have instead of following a recipe exactly.

It’s very forgiving and if you don’t have vanilla extract, you could try substituting with any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and sugar for flavor.

Alternatively, you could live on the edge by adding in some liquor like rum or brandy, or you could opt for a sweet substitute like maple syrup or honey. 

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