What Is Vanilla Extract Used For? Vanilla Flavoring Facts

What Is Vanilla Extract and What Is It Used For?

what is vanilla extract and what is it used for

The vanilla orchid holds a unique flavor within its beans and pods, but what is vanilla extract used for?

Vanilla extract is a solution, often found in kitchens, made by percolating and macerating vanilla pods and vanilla beans in a combination of ethanol and water. When the process is over, the result is a pure extract of vanilla bean.

Vanilla extract goes into many Western desserts, but it also finds its way into home remedies and savory dishes.

Typical Vanilla Extract Uses

Most people encounter vanilla extract when they make their first cake or inaugural batch of sugar cookies. Vanilla extract’s best uses are in baking recipes from bread to buttercream frosting, so it lives in most kitchen cabinets, alongside sugar and cocoa powder.

If you have an old-fashioned grandma, you may even think of vanilla extract as a cheap perfume hack; you can dab a little on the inside of your wrists to smell like a sweet baked good.

Many people also use vanilla to help with intestinal gas, fevers, tooth decay, and anxiety. There is no scientific evidence to back up these uses, but many still use pure vanilla extract as a home remedy.

There are also rumors that pure vanilla extract works as an aphrodisiac and may increase sexual desire.

Other Uses For Vanilla Extract at Home

What is vanilla extract used for besides cooking? You might be surprised. Vanilla can do more than make a delicious cake, and you may not know about these other home uses for vanilla extract.

Removing Bad Odors / Air Freshener

If your fridge has a rank smell, or you can’t get rid of that fish smell from last week’s dinner, the vanilla extract may be your solution. Microwaving a bowl of pure extract or soaking a cotton ball in the extract and keeping it around can help eliminate pesky odors.

Cocktails and Mixed Drinks

Adding a dash of vanilla extract to your espresso martini or white Russian will bring the sweet, creamy flavor to a new and familiar level. The comforting vanilla flavor helps mask the alcohol flavor without eliminating it.

Grilling Out and Barbeque

When you combine the sweet and savory, you find new and exciting tastes that lure you in. Using vanilla extract in a meat marinade or to flavor grilled fruits brings vanilla extract into a whole new world.

Zesty Tomato Sauce Flavoring

Vanilla extract in a tomato sauce helps cut down the acidity and lifts the other flavors like the onion and garlic.

Vanilla Coffee Flavoring

If you want a replacement for the sugar or honey you put in your coffee, you can throw in a splash of vanilla extract to brighten up the flavor without adding more calories. You will also get a subtle taste of that delicious vanilla flavoring.

Delicious and Unique Smoothies

Adding a few drops of vanilla extract to your banana or strawberry smoothie can slightly elevate the flavors for a more decadent and flavorful smoothie.

What Is the Purpose of Vanilla Extract in Baking?

what is the purpose of vanilla extract in baking

What is vanilla extract used for in baking? While vanilla extract sometimes offers a subtle vanilla flavor in baked goods, the purpose of the vanilla extract in baking is to enhance the flavors of the other ingredients in the recipe. Many recipes that call for vanilla extract do not have a vanilla flavor.

Vanilla extract has no chemical role in baking, so it isn’t necessary to make a cake rise or make cookies soft. Vanilla extract is for flavor and flavor alone, but it can be the difference between an outstanding cookie and an okay cookie.

Natural Vanilla Extract vs. Artificial Vanilla Extract Differences

natural vanilla extract vs. artificial vanilla extract differences

If a vanilla extract is pure, it means the only vanilla flavoring in it comes directly from the vanilla beans and vanilla pods. The pure extract is the pure vanilla flavor that is pulled from the vanilla orchid using water and alcohol and nothing else.

On the other hand, artificial vanilla extract uses artificial flavors made from chemicals. More than 99% of all the vanilla extract in the world is artificial and made from synthetic vanillin. Synthetic vanillin is a lab-produced version of the chemical compound found naturally in a real vanilla orchid.

The Main Difference Between Pure Vanilla Extract and Imitation Vanilla Extract Is the Flavor

the main difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract is the flavor

Pure vanilla has a more soft and encompassing vanilla flavor, while imitation vanilla delivers a more sugary and candy-like flavor. The chemicals in the imitation vanilla give an almost acid-like aftertaste when the vanilla isn’t baked fully into a dessert.

What’s the Difference Between Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Essence?

what’s the difference between vanilla extract and vanilla essence

Like artificial vanilla extract, vanilla essence is a synthetic ingredient made from mostly chemicals and sugary products like corn syrup. Because vanilla extract is a pure derivative of the vanilla orchid, the vanilla flavor comes through stronger and more distinct. Vanilla essence uses synthetic vanillin that doesn’t have that same powerful vanilla flavoring.

When using it as a raw ingredient in a recipe, pure vanilla extract will come through better, but vanilla essence can work well in baked goods.

Can I Substitute Something for Vanilla Extract?

can i substitute something for vanilla extract

There are many substitutes for a vanilla extract that you likely already have in your kitchen and they are usually something with a good amount of sweetness without being too sugary.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup has a similarly warm and rich flavor that vanilla brings to many dishes. This is why maple syrup is a great substitute and can deliver a sweet flavor without being too sugary. Where pure vanilla differs from imitations and essences, pure maple syrup delivers a better flavor than imitation syrup.


Honey has a deep and comforting flavor that can stand in for vanilla in many recipes. However, just like vanilla and extract and maple syrup, there are pure options on the market as well as imitations. Pure honey and imitation honey will both work, but the flavor of the pure option will always be cleaner and more distinct.


You can get a little boozy by adding a splash of rum or brandy in place of vanilla extract. It helps that their composition is similar because the pure vanilla extract is surprisingly high in alcohol content.

Fruit Zest

The rind of orange can bring that natural sweetness to your recipe without settling for a sugary, artificial substitute.

Dry Spices

Spices like lavender, chai spice, cinnamon, or cloves can step in when you run out of vanilla. These have saved many of my recipes, but you have to be careful to choose the right spice for the recipe’s flavor profile.

Other Extracts

If you have a collection of extracts at home, it’s easy to swap out one for the other. It depends on what the recipe is, but almond, orange, peppermint, chocolate, or coffee are all possible substitutes for vanilla extract. The closest one is probably almond, and it will add a slight nuttiness to the recipe.

Is it OK to Eat Vanilla Extract?

is it ok to eat vanilla extract

Yes, vanilla extract is perfectly safe for humans to consume raw. However, it will not taste pleasant as one may expect. It also has a high alcohol content that may lead to intoxication.

You can eat raw vanilla extract, but you’ll likely regret doing so.

How Much Alcohol Does Vanilla Extract Have?

how much alcohol does vanilla extract have

All flavor extracts are at least 35% composed of alcohol. For reference, a standard vodka is around 40% alcohol content, so vanilla extract rivals hard liquor ABVs.

Can Vanilla Extract Get You Drunk?

It wouldn’t taste very pleasant, but because of the alcohol content 4-5 ounces, which is about two shot glasses, will be enough to get you drunk. So be careful, or you may find yourself tipsy in the middle of your cookie recipe.

James Marshall

About the author

James is a business management professional and consultant with a former background in maintenance, repair, and hands-on projects. He enjoys DIY tasks and maintenance around the home as well as part-time writing. Read more »