If you’ve made chocolate chip cookies or a birthday cake from scratch, chances are the recipe called for vanilla extract.

Typically used in small amounts, vanilla extract is used to enhance the other flavors in a recipe. Depending on what you’re making, it may also impart a subtle vanilla flavor.

When shopping for vanilla extract, you’ll likely see products labeled as either pure vanilla extract or vanilla essence. The latter is also called imitation vanilla flavor.

As pure vanilla extract is generally more expensive, you may wonder what the difference is between the two.

This article reviews the differences between vanilla extract and essence, and whether you can use them interchangeably.

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Vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and ethyl alcohol (1).

The extract gets its signature vanilla flavor from a molecule called vanillin found in vanilla beans (1, 2).

While standards for pure vanilla extract may vary by country, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that the final product must contain at least 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces (380 grams) of vanilla beans per gallon (3.8 liters) (3, 4).

As long as it meets these standards, vanilla extract can also contain small amounts of sweeteners, including sugar, corn syrup, or dextrose (3).

In contrast, vanilla essence is typically made using water, ethanol, propylene glycol, emulsifiers, and chemically produced flavors and colors.

Due to differences in production, vanilla extract is generally less processed and has a stronger, more pure vanilla flavor.

Summary

Vanilla essence is a more processed product that’s made using artificial flavors and colors. As vanilla extract is made primarily from vanilla beans soaked in ethyl alcohol and water, it tends to have a more distinguishable vanilla flavor.

Using vanilla essence in place of vanilla extract should not affect the structure of your final product. However, it may produce noticeable differences in flavor.

In addition to vanillin, vanilla beans contain more than 200 compounds that contribute to their flavor and aroma. As a result, real vanilla extract has a deeper, more complex flavor profile (1, 5).

This difference tends to be more noticeable in recipes that either aren’t cooked or cooked over low heat. Therefore, for desserts like puddings, custards, pastry creams, and icings, it’s best to use pure vanilla extract.

However, for baked goods that aren’t expected to have a noticeable vanilla flavor, such as chocolate chip cookies or carrot cake, you likely won’t notice much of a difference using vanilla essence.

Additionally, depending on the brand, the flavor of vanilla extract is generally twice as strong as that of vanilla essence.

So, when using vanilla essence in a recipe that calls for pure vanilla extract, you’ll want to use up to twice as much.

Summary

Vanilla extract and essence can be substituted for one another. As vanilla extract has a stronger, deeper flavor, using vanilla essence can noticeably affect the flavor of a dish, especially in recipes that aren’t cooked at high heat.

Despite generally being used in small amounts, vanilla extract can enhance and deepen the flavor of your favorite sweet recipe.

As vanilla extract is made from pure vanilla beans, it has a stronger, more complex vanilla flavor, compared with vanilla essence, which is cheaper but artificially flavored.

While vanilla essence can be used in baked goods in which vanilla isn’t the star flavor, it’s worth splurging on a good quality vanilla extract the next time you make vanilla pudding or a royal icing from scratch.