If you’ve made chocolate chip cookies or a birthday cake from scratch, chances are the recipe called for vanilla extract. This ingredient is typically used in small amounts to enhance the other flavors in a recipe and may 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.

Pure vanilla extract is generally more expensive. Aside from the cost, though, you may wonder how the two differ.

This article explains the differences between vanilla extract and essence, then tells you whether you can swap one for the other.

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Vanilla extract is less processed and more expensive than vanilla essence, and many people say it has a stronger, purer vanilla flavor.

What is vanilla extract?

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).

Standards for pure vanilla extract 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 may also contain small amounts of sweeteners, including sugar, corn syrup, or dextrose (3).

How is vanilla extract made?

Pure vanilla extract is made from mature vanilla bean pods that have been aged for 3–4 months, allowing them to develop characteristic vanilla flavors, including increased levels of vanillin (5).

Once cured, the pods are added to a mixture of water and ethyl alcohol. The alcohol draws out the vanillin and other compounds, which infuse into the liquid. This can be a time-consuming process.

Food manufacturers can manipulate environmental conditions to speed the extraction process. However, in home kitchens, the mixture must sit for up to 12 months before it’s ready to use (5).

After the extraction is complete, the bean pods are filtered out and the extract is ready to use

What is vanilla essence?

Vanilla essence, also known as artificial vanilla extract, is typically made using water, ethanol, propylene glycol, emulsifiers, and chemically produced flavors and colors.

Like the extract, vanilla essence gets its flavor from vanillin ⁠— but it’s a lab-made (synthetic) version that’s much less expensive than using vanilla beans.

Castoreum ⁠— a secretion from the anal glands of beavers that has a smell similar to vanilla ⁠— is often rumored to be a key ingredient in vanilla essence. However, castoreum is rarely used in food.

The latest data available, from 2010, suggests that fewer than 150 pounds (68 kg) of castoreum are used in food per year in the United States, compared with worldwide demand for over 40 million pounds (18 million kg) of vanillin per year (6, 7).

Summary

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

Using vanilla essence in place of vanilla extract should not affect the structure of your final product, though 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, pure vanilla extract has a deeper, more complex flavor profile (1, 8).

This difference tends to be more noticeable in dishes that are either uncooked or cooked over low heat. So 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 if you’re using vanilla essence in a recipe that calls for pure vanilla extract, you’ll want to use up to twice as much.

Recommended uses

This table suggests which dishes to use vanilla extract or vanilla essence for:

Food itemVanilla extract or essence
vanilla cakeextract
chocolate cakeessence
chocolate chip cookiesessence
iced coffeeextract
cheesecakeessence
vanilla ice creamextract
homemade frosting or icingextract
vanilla puddingextract
chocolate puddingessence

Generally, real vanilla extract is best for dishes that are uncooked or rely on vanilla as the key flavor, while vanilla essence may be a better fit for baked goods that don’t need a strong vanilla punch.

That said, if you’re looking to avoid artificial flavors and colors, you’ll likely want to choose pure vanilla extract over vanilla essence.

Summary

Vanilla extract and essence are largely interchangeable, though the stronger flavor of extract may be preferable for uncooked dishes, items cooked at low heat, and foods that require a powerful vanilla punch.

Here’s a simple recipe for homemade vanilla extract.

Ingredients

  • 3–6 vanilla bean pods
  • 8 ounces (240 mL) of vodka

Steps

  1. Slice each vanilla bean pod in half.
  2. In a sanitized jar or bottle with an airtight lid, add vanilla bean pods and cover with vodka.
  3. Close the bottle and store in a cool, dark place, such as your pantry, for at least 6 weeks and up to 12 months.
  4. When you’re ready to use the extract, remove the vanilla beans.

The more vanilla beans you use, the stronger the taste. It’s a good idea to shake the bottle periodically.

Although the high alcohol content of the vodka should inhibit bacterial growth, don’t use your vanilla extract if it has visible mold growth or a foul odor.

Summary

Although it requires a long wait, homemade vanilla extract needs just two ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka.

Despite generally being used in small amounts, vanilla extract can enhance the flavor of your favorite dessert.

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

While you can use vanilla essence in baked goods where vanilla isn’t the key flavor, it may be worth splurging on real vanilla extract the next time you make vanilla pudding or royal icing from scratch.

Just one thing

Try this today: If you’re trying to cut back on your sugar intake, spices like vanilla and cinnamon add a mildly sweet flavor to foods without any sugar. Try this flavor combo on your favorite homemade dessert to see how you like it.