Herbal Nerd Society Exclusive Article

Has the high price of Vanilla Extract got you down?

Substitutes for Vanilla Extract are Our History

Vanilla, aka Vanilla planifolia, is a tropical vine orchid originally domesticated in Mexico that has become the baker’s standard for extract flavoring worldwide. It was savored first by the Totonac people of Eastern Mexico and eventually taken up by the Aztecs who passed it on to the Spanish. By the mid-16th century Europe had fallen in love with Vanilla. Vanilla extract substitutes were the norm as little as 500 years ago!

The Vanilla Monopoly: How Vanilla Extract Became a Staple

Through the centuries, the cost of Vanilla has risen and fallen many times. Some of that was market demand, but a lot has been all about propagation of the vanilla bean. Until the 1800s, Vanilla refused to fruit outside of its native habitat. Eventually, cultivators realized that Vanilla relies on a single pollinator, the Melipopa bee, who’s tiny enough to access the nectar and pollen of this long, clinging vine.

Vanilla flowers for just one day, and if it’s not pollinated in that time no vanilla beans will grow. This alone gave Mexico a monopoly on vanilla beans. Eventually, cultivators found a way to hand-pollinate the flowers. After that discovery, Vanilla farms took hold in far away lands like Madagascar, India, Indonesia, and Reunion. After that, it didn’t take long for vanilla beans to take over, making substitutes for vanilla beans a baking conundrum when the vanilla prices are high and the supply low.

The cost of extract today, as well as of whole vanilla beans, is a reflection of the ups and downs of the world market and the economics of the farmers who grow them now. Vanilla is a demanding crop, as you can well imagine. It can grow up to 300 feet (91 m), so it takes up a lot of space in full-sun, quite warm, and reasonably damp conditions.

Worldwide, the places Vanilla will grow large enough to fruit in enough quantity to make it a profitable crop are limited. It’s still hand-pollinated, so it takes dedication and time to turn those long vines into fruits and eventually profit. Vanilla plants aren’t the only plants that carry the flavor and scent of the pure Vanilla extract we’ve come to love in darn near all of our baked goods and confections.

Pure Vanilla Extract vs. Imitation Vanilla or Natural Vanilla Flavor

Most of the Imitation Vanilla flavors and extracts, including those you’ll see crowding out the pure stuff on your grocer’s shelves during high-price years, are made with either a proplyene glycol extracted vanillin from plants other than vanilla, like wheat or guaiacol or lignin, or from a synthetic version of that same chemical. The proplyene glycol extraction is generally sold as Natural Vanilla Flavoring. It’s a non-alcohol extraction made from real vanilla beans. Imitation Vanilla is synthetic vanillin, the molecule that delivers much of the scent and flavor we identify with vanilla beans. If synthetic or chemical extractions don’t suit your senses, there is hope.

Vanilla hasn’t always been the top choice for bakers worldwide. It took until the Victorian era for England to truly embrace the sweet, floral scent and flavor of this bean. After England’s bakers opened the gate, vanilla became a standard in kitchens across continental Europe and eventually North America..at least for the wealthy. It took much longer for vanilla to become the staple for baking we now consider it.

Can you Make Homemade Vanilla Extract?

Pure Vanilla Extract takes a long time to infuse. There’s a terrific DIY here, if you want to give it a try…but it won’t be ready for this holiday’s baking season. Vanilla beans are best infused in vodka or bourbon for at least nine months. Much like the care, attention, and patience it takes to grow these luxurious orchid beans, it takes a whole lot of care, time, and cash to make a bake-worthy Homemade Vanilla Extract.

Vanilla Extract was once a Substitute!

Our ancestors as recently as two hundred years ago relied on a much wider variety of flavors to give their bakes a signature appeal. They drew on their own gardens and incorporated the flavors of their region into their bakes.

Much like the modern Microbrewing movement has been playing with a variety of beer and cider flavorings rooted in our collective ancestor’s world, we modern bakers can draw on our own regions and favorite spices to change-up our cookies, cakes, and pastries, too. With the prices of pure vanilla so high this year, it makes a whole lot of sense for herbalists and bakers alike to reach for a few new extracts to give their Holiday baking a personalized, creative flair.

What Can I use Instead of Vanilla Extract in a Cake? Cookies? Brownies? Ice Cream?

Substitute sweet, floral extracts with a hint of earthy flavor for vanilla Extract in your favorite baked goods, including cookies, cakes, brownies, creams, puddings, and ice creams. My own favorite of late has been cardamon extract, although Pink Rose extract is a really close second. Consider other tasty flavors, too. Orange and Ginger extract wonderfully and they blend beautifully with chocolate and nutty flavors. Tulsi and Chamomile are beautiful when used lightly in golden cakes, creams and frostings. Whatever you’re baking, it is wise to give your herbal extracts a test before you commit to the whole recipe.

Tasty Vanilla Substitutes You Can Make at Home

Making your own herbal extracts is easier than making tincture or even bitters. You can whip up an extract in a week’s time, considerably shorter than the near year-long infusion pure vanilla reportedly requires. That means those of us who just ran out of pure vanilla don’t need to despair or break the bank to get on with the Holiday baking.

The quick procedure is this:

  1. Measure your herb of choice and the volume of alcohol listed below into a glass jar and seal it shut.
  2. Let it stand for a week, then strain the herb out. The liquid that remains is your extract. Easy!

Here are a few flavors to get you started:

  • Cardamon – dried seed, whole, 20 g to 100 ml at 50% alcohol by volume, steeped for 1 week, then strained
  • Tulsi – fresh tops, lightly chopped, 10 g to 50 ml at 75% alcohol by volume, steeped for 1 week, then strained
  • Rose petals or buds – dried, 20 g to 100 ml at 50% alcohol by volume, lightly crushed, steeped for 1 week, then strained.
  • Chamomile buds – dried, 20 g to 100 ml at 50% alcohol by volume, lightly crushed, steeped for 1 week, then strained.

Other ideas:

  • Orange peel
  • Fennel seed
  • Star anise
  • Pomegranate seed

How to Bake with Herbal Extracts

Use the vanilla extract measurement in your recipes as a guideline. I often adjust up or down based on how strong I want the extract’s flavor to be in the finished bake. I’ve noticed that Cardamon, for instance, can be a little strong in lighter flavored items, like vanilla custards or creme brulee. In those, I reduce the amount of extract I use, but in chocolaty bakes I go full strength with the stronger flavors, like Cardamon.

Test Vanilla Extract Substitute Flavors Before you Commit to a Bake

Give your extract a try in a cup of cocoa to get a feel how it’ll taste in a chocolate-based bake. You can use this recipe as a guideline for making a simple cocoa that’ll give you a nice, clean chocolate flavor canvas for your extract. I usually use a few drops of the extract I’m auditioning in about 8-12 ounces (250-375 ml) cocoa.

Try a cup of heated whole milk or half and half with the extract to get a feel for how the non-chocolate bakes and lighter frostings might taste. I use about 8-12 ounces (250-375 ml) of milk and a few drops of the vanilla extract substitute I’m testing. A nob of butter or ghee added during the warming stage will give your test a rich feel akin to the richness of a cake or pastry.

Cupcakes also make terrific mini-tests for extract flavors. Make your cake batter using no extract, then add a few drops of each of the flavors as you pour into each cupcake tin. You’ll get a more even flavor profile if you use a small bowl or cup to mix the extract into the individual cupcake’s batter and then pour it into the actual baking tin. Be sure to mark your cupcakes so you know how you flavored each one.