6 Vanilla Extract Substitutes to Use When You're in a Pinch

Discover our best vanilla substitutes for cookies, cakes, custards, and beyond.

Take a peek at your favorite cake or cookie recipe and it's clear that a little bit of vanilla extract goes a long way. Often called for in ½ teaspoon to 1 tablespoon or so per batch, vanilla extract is a potent, floral, aromatic elixir of alcohol infused with the flavor of vanilla bean pods.

Despite the fact that you'll be using it in small doses, if you bake every day or only once a month, you'll likely be utilizing vanilla extract fairly often. So next time you run out unexpectedly or if you prefer another vanilla-flavored option, consider one of these vanilla extract substitutes. Unlike imitation vanilla, most of these subs for vanilla extract can stand toe-to-toe with the real thing and deliver a familiar rich, rounded flavor that can complement the other dessert recipe components.

Read on to discover several Test Kitchen-approved vanilla substitutes that can take your dessert from good to gourmet bakery-worthy.

vanilla extract substitutes to use in a pinch illustration

BHG / Xiaojie Liu

6 of the Best Vanilla Extract Substitutes

Our best answer to "what is a substitute for vanilla extract?" can be solved by following Ina Garten's lead and keeping a constantly-refreshing supply in your pantry. How is this sorcery possible? Simply grab a mason jar and follow our recipe for Homemade Vanilla Extract and 7 Variations, which calls for your choice of spirit (bourbon, brandy, rum, or vodka) plus split vanilla beans. Any time a recipe calls for vanilla bean seeds, unscrew the lid, transfer the bean pod to the jar, screw the lid back on, and shake to combine. Allow to steep for at least 1 month—the flavor deepens with time, so this recipe only gets better as it sets—then use as described in your recipe. Top off the jar with a splash more of your chosen spirit and this vanilla extract can live on for decades. (Garten's has been going for more than 35 years!)

If you're seeking a vanilla extract substitute because you prefer to utilize alcohol-free ingredients, we have plenty of spirit-free subs for vanilla extract ahead, too. (By the way, vanilla extract typically contains around 35 percent alcohol, but since it's used in such small quantities per batch, the total alcohol content per bite is negligible.)

So when your bottle of store-bought vanilla extract runs dry or you're just in need of another option, consider one of these subs for vanilla.

Test Kitchen Tip: Concentration levels may vary, especially among homemade vanilla substitutes. Try our subs for vanilla extract in the ratios explained below, then make notes on your recipe about what you like and don't like so you can adjust accordingly the next time.

Alcohol-Free Subs for Vanilla Extract

Fresh Vanilla Beans

For an aromatic vanilla extract substitute, swap the seeds from 1 whole vanilla bean for 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract. Vanilla bean seeds give your recipes a more intense vanilla flavor and brown confetti-like vanilla flecks; both qualities that we adore, but if this isn't what you're looking for in a vanilla substitute, read on.

Vanilla Powder

Vanilla powder is a fine, pale powder made of ground vanilla beans. This is a stellar vanilla substitute in lightly-colored batters, doughs, and frostings since it doesn't tint the recipe brown like extract or paste might. Since this is made in different concentrations by brand and doesn't evaporate during baking (like liquid extract can while cooking at high heat), start using powder as a one-to-one vanilla substitute, taste, and tweak as desired during future trials.

Maple Syrup or Honey

Steer clear of imitation maple syrup, which is primarily composed of corn syrup. But pure maple syrup? Now that's a brilliant vanilla substitute, especially in blondies, oatmeal cookies, pancakes, waffles, crepes, or French toast. Its rich and sweet flavor makes a decent vanilla bean substitute and a great vanilla extract substitute. Honey's floral and bright sweetness is delightful in recipes like blondies, muffins, quick breads, cakes, and cookies. Both of these sweet vanilla substitutes are thicker in texture, so keep this in mind as you think ahead to your desired finished product. For every 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract called for in your recipe, use about 1 tablespoon of honey or maple syrup.

Vanilla-Flavored Plant-Based Milk Alternative

If you're okay with a whisper-quiet vanilla substitute flavor, trade in vanilla-flavored almond, oat, cashew, or soy milk. Use as a one-for-one sub for vanilla extract.

Alcohol-Containing Subs for Vanilla Extract

Vanilla Bean Paste

In addition to being a terrific vanilla extract substitute, this is the ultimate vanilla bean substitute if your recipe calls for just the seeds. Vanilla bean paste (aka vanilla paste) is a combination of vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, and sugar. Intense in flavor and smooth and syrupy in texture, use paste as a vanilla extract substitute in a one-to-one ratio. Translation: Use the exact same amount of paste as the amount of extract called for in your recipe.

Alternative Flavoring Extracts

Can you substitute almond extract for vanilla extract? You bet! Depending on the prevailing flavor, almond extract is generally a lovely vanilla substitute for cookies (including sugar and shortbread cookies) and some cakes (subtly-nutty pound cake, anyone?). Maple extract is an incredible vanilla extract substitute in the same recipes explained in "maple syrup and honey" above. Use half as much of one of these stronger-flavored extracts to act as a sub for vanilla extract.

The Best and Worst Times to Use a Vanilla Extract Substitute

The best times to employ a vanilla extract substitute:

  • When you have vanilla paste or fresh vanilla beans handy; they're the most similarly-flavored sub for vanilla extract, or
  • In a recipe that's not predominantly vanilla-flavored (quick breads, muffins, pancakes, oatmeal cookies, chocolate cakes, and brownies are all good examples)

The worst times to use one of these vanilla substitutes? You guessed it: In any recipe that centers around the vanilla flavor, such as a vanilla buttercream frosting, cake, pudding, or ice cream. In these cases, it's best to save your dessert adventure for another day after you have time to make a supermarket run or online grocery order for vanilla extract (or one of the solid vanilla substitutes above).

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