Vanilla is a popular flavor and key ingredient in countless desserts, from your favorite homemade chocolate chip cookies to the decadent buttercream frosting that's piped on cakes for special occasions. But with the variety of vanilla extracts available on the market, with varying names, strengths, and flavor profiles (not to mention price), it can be hard to know which to choose for whatever recipe you're making.
Real, "pure" vanilla extracts—made from higher-quality vanilla seed pods harvested by hand—are typically pricier and have different flavor profiles and consistencies from vanilla extracts synthesized in a lab. And there is a wide variety to be found even among genuine vanilla extracts, such as those derived from Madagascar, Tahitian, or Mexican vanilla beans.
Here, we break down the difference between the top vanilla extracts to help you choose the best for your needs.
Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
Trusted by professional bakers
Cold extraction best for flavorful cold recipes
Pure Madagascar bourbon vanilla
Nielsen-Massey is a brand that’s well known by professionals and home bakers who appreciate good quality at a fair price. The versatile vanilla extract—described as sweet, creamy, and mellow—works well for all of your baking, as well as for cold desserts, like ice cream or pudding. It’s made from Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and is Non-GMO Project verified, kosher, and gluten-free.
Nielsen-Massey points out that vanilla isn’t just one flavor, but a combination of over 300 flavor compounds, all delicately extracted from vanilla beans. The company pioneered a cold-extraction process to keep all of those compounds intact over a longer extraction period that typically takes weeks to complete.
For those who love the complex and rich taste of real vanilla, you’ll find it here.
Price at time of publish: $35 for 8 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon | Extract Type: Pure extract | Sizes Available: 2, 4, 8, 32, and 128 ounces
"Nielsen-Massey's Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is a staple in professional pastry kitchens and bakeries. The vanilla flavor is bold and well-balanced to beautifully accent baked goods, ice creams, and fruits." — Jenny Kellerhals, Baking Expert for The Spruce Eats
Runner-Up, Best Overall
Heilala Everyday Vanilla Extract with Pure Vanilla Extract and Other Natural Flavors
Larger size for regular bakers
Ethically and sustainably produced vanilla
All-purpose supporting role flavor
Not ideal for vanilla-forward desserts
While the Heilala Vanilla brand is a New Zealand-based company, the beans used to create all of the company’s vanilla come from Tonga. Tonga doesn’t produce nearly as much vanilla as Madagascar, Tahiti, Mexico, and Indonesia, but its climate and natural resources make it an ideal setting for vanilla cultivation. In collaboration with local farmers and families, Heilala Vanilla was established as a humanitarian project to create a sustainable income and self-sufficiency for those who produce the vanilla for Heilala in Tonga. So on your end, you’re getting small-batch sustainably-produced vanilla that you can feel good about using.
It’s worth checking out all of the high-quality vanilla products that Heilala has to offer, but the Everyday Vanilla Extract is our choice for informal and regular home baking. The vanilla extract is available in a 16.9-ounce bottle, which ensures you’ll likely have vanilla in your pantry when the urge to bake hits without an extra trip to the store. The vanilla extract itself is a blended vanilla, incorporating both pure vanilla bean extractives from Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, as well as additional natural flavors to boost the overall flavor. Because it’s a blended extract, the price is a little easier to stomach than an entirely pure extract, which is helpful if you bake often. This vanilla is best used for baked goods where vanilla isn’t necessarily the star, but an important supporting player. Anything from a quick batch of brownies to a tender banana bread will benefit from a generous splash of the Heilala Everyday Vanilla.
Price at time of publish: $26 for 16.9 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon & natural flavors | Extract Type: Blended extract | Sizes Available: 4.22 and 16.9 ounces
"I keep a variety of vanilla extracts, pastes, and powders in my cabinet for different uses — but for quick and easy low-risk everyday baking I default to the Heilala Everyday Vanilla Extract. Since it's sustainably produced, I don't mind using it more generously than other vanillas, and it's a great background flavor for most baked goods." — Jenny Kellerhals, Baking Expert for The Spruce Eats
McCormick All Natural Pure Vanilla Extract
Available in most grocery stores
Appropriate for baked goods
Accessibly priced in various sizes
Slightly less rich than other extracts
Want pure and natural vanilla flavor, but don’t need a large bottle with a hefty price tag? There's no beating McCormick's Pure Vanilla Extract in taste, value, and broad availability. Made from Madagascar vanilla beans, water, and alcohol, this extract will give your recipes that classic vanilla flavor without any artificial ingredients. You’ll notice that the extract doesn’t include corn syrup, which the McCormick company stopped including in its extracts in 2010. The lack of added sugar also makes this extract a great pick for savory recipes that involve vanilla—and because it's pure vanilla, a little goes a long way when you're baking or cooking. Furthermore, this pure vanilla extract is available in five different sizes, so you won’t have to buy more than you need if you don’t use vanilla extract often.
Price at time of publish: $5 for 1 ounce
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon | Extract Type: Pure extract | Sizes Available: 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 ounces
"The McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract is a staple for home bakers given how accessible it is almost anywhere you buy groceries. You can smell the warm vanilla flavor the moment you open the bottle, and the extract works well for cookies, cakes, and frostings." — Jenny Kellerhals, Baking Expert for The Spruce Eats
Blue Cattle Truck Trading Co. Pure Gourmet Mexican Vanilla Extract
Made from single-origin Mexican Vanilla
Available in several sizes
No sugar, additives, or preservatives
More expensive in small sizes
Pure Mexican vanilla is probably the most challenging vanilla to find on the market, but there are a few options available at a median price. One such option is the Blue Cattle Truck Trading Co. which claims to produce vanilla from a single source—the Caonsa family farm in Veracruz, Mexico. A more subtle flavor than some other vanillas, this extract is best used to round out custards and sauces.
The pure extract, produced in Mexico and bottled in the USA, meets the FDA pure vanilla extract requirement of a minimum of 35 percent alcohol. It doesn’t include any additives, preservatives, synthetic flavors, or sugars, according to the brand. Currently, this vanilla extract is available in various sizes, from 3.3 ounces to a half gallon. Be aware that Blue Cattle Trucking Company sells two types of vanilla extract. The first is the "Pure Gourmet" version which is made with 35% alcohol, and the other is the "Traditional" Mexican vanilla extract which is made with 10 percent alcohol and includes vanillin to boost the vanilla flavor.
Price at time of publish: $20 for 3.3 ounces
Bean Type: Mexican | Extract Type: Pure extract | Sizes Available: 3.3, 8.4, 16.7, and 64 ounces
Vanilla extract in some form can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to high-end specialty spice stores. For many baked goods, like cookies and cakes, that have several flavors at play and only ask for a teaspoon of extract, an artificial extract will be fine. For recipes where vanilla is the main event, try to use the best pure extract you can find.
Singing Dog Vanilla Vanilla Bean Paste
Long shelf life
While vanilla extract and vanilla paste have a 1:1 conversion ratio, one will give you a slightly stronger vanilla taste than the other. Vanilla extract is the typical inclusion in lots of baked goods, but if you are looking to level up your treats, try this Vanilla Bean Paste from Singing Dog Vanilla. (Keep in mind, though, that if you swap extract for paste, you are losing some liquid.)
The company sources its signature product from farmers in South America and Indonesia, and 1 tablespoon is the same amount of vanilla as one whole bean. The glass jar of vanilla can also live in your pantry for up to 5 years—and the longer it sits up until then, the more flavorful it gets.
Price at time of publish: $29 for 4 ounces
Bean Type: South American and Indonesian | Extract Type: Double-strength vanilla | Sizes Available: 2 and 4 ounces
Thrive Market Organic Vanilla Extract
Ethically sourced from co-op farmers
May contain trace allergens
This vanilla from Thrive Market is made from organic, ethically sourced Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans, as well as organic alcohol. The extract is also sugar-free, so it's appropriate for either sweet or savory cooking. Along with being organic, it is also non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, and kosher—and very wallet-friendly compared to other popular extracts. The extract comes in a bottle that’s made from recycled plastic, making it even more eco-friendly. While it doesn’t contain dairy, wheat, or soy, it is made in a facility that processes those products, so keep that in mind if you have allergies or sensitivities.
Price at time of publish: $13 for 4 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon | Extract Type: Organic pure extract | Sizes Available: 4 and 8 ounces
Best for Ice Cream
Nielsen-Massey Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract
Beautiful exclusive blend
Great for baking or raw uses
Highly reputable brand
Made by Nielsen-Massey specifically for Williams Sonoma, you won’t find this particular vanilla extract anywhere else. It's made from a combination of both Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans and is produced using a cold extraction process that preserves the subtle flavors of vanilla that may otherwise be lost with heat. Tahitian vanilla is typically more expensive, because of its more delicate floral and fruity aromas, and smaller production volume. In order to maintain the rich flavor, give this extract a try in cold recipes, whether you're making ice cream or a refrigerator cake layered with vanilla-flavored whipped cream.
Price at time of publish: $20 for 4 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon & Tahitian | Extract Type: Pure extract | Sizes Available: 4 and 8 ounces
This brand of vanilla is so popular, Williams Sonoma created a Bundt Cake Mix "flecked with bits of vanilla beans" that only requires eggs, milk, and butter, along with a Vanilla Bean Pancake & Waffle Mix, a Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookie Mix, a Gluten-Free Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookie Mix, and a Madagascar Vanilla Quick Bread Mix—all with Nielsen Massey vanilla included as the signature ingredient.
Best with Seeds
Sonoma Syrup Co Vanilla Bean Crush Extract
Balanced Tahitian and Madagascar flavors
Attractive flecks of vanilla seeds
Only available in 8-ounce or 1-gallon sizes
This unique product is thick, syrupy, and filled with tiny vanilla bean seeds, so your finished desserts will have that characteristic speckling you normally only get from fresh vanilla bean pods. The company uses a combination of both Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans, so the flavor and the characteristics of both come through in one bottle. This syrup can replace standard vanilla extract in all your recipes in equal amounts, even though it's on the thicker side. It comes in an 8-ounce bottle that will last you through multiple recipes, but we have a feeling you'll keep finding excuses to use it.
Price at time of publish: $47 for 8 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon & Tahitian | Extract Type: Pure extract | Sizes Available: 8 ounces and 1 gallon
Penzys Spices Pure Double-Strength Vanilla Extract
Perfect for vanilla lovers
Use half as much for typical recipes
Madagascar beans good for all baking projects
For recipes where vanilla isn’t just a supporting player, but instead is the star of the show, a double-strength vanilla extract, like this one from Penzys Spices, is an ideal ingredient in your ice creams and baked goods. Double the number of vanilla beans (around 200, instead of 100) are packed into a gallon of at least 35 percent alcohol to infuse. This means that you’ll only need half as much vanilla extract as a typical recipe calls for, for the same result.
It’s also cost-effective to have double-strength vanilla on hand if you do a good deal of baking since you won’t go through it as quickly. With that said, it does come at a premium, since more of the good stuff is packed into every drop. This extract also doesn't contain vanilla bean seeds, if you're looking for a smoother-looking final product.
Price at time of publish: $53 for 4 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon | Extract Type: Double-strength pure extract | Sizes Available: 2, 4, 8, and 16 ounces
Best Vanilla Powder
Beyond Good Pure Ground Madagascar Vanilla Powder
Contains only real vanilla
Great for countless baking and savory applications
Stronger potency than extracts
Powder and extract measurements differ
Die-hard vanilla fans know that it’s hard to beat the stronger flavors and aromas that come from using whole vanilla beans. But whole vanilla beans are often expensive, sold in very small quantities, and difficult to find. A convenient and comparable alternative to single vanilla beans is ground vanilla powder. The Beyond Good Pure Ground Vanilla Powder is a 1-ounce jar absolutely stuffed with beautifully ground vanilla, that can be used in any baking or savory projects, as well as sprinkled on top of salads, cereal, finished desserts, and mixed in with other dry ingredients and marinades.
Since vanilla powder is stronger than vanilla extract, you’re going to be using less of it in your recipes. To get started, we generally recommend using 0.5 teaspoons of vanilla powder to every full teaspoon of extract in a recipe. Once you know how much flavor the vanilla powder contributes, you can play with reducing or adding to that amount. This particular jar contains more than 15 teaspoons of vanilla powder, which translates to at least 30 teaspoons of vanilla extract, but likely a little more. In comparison, a 4-ounce bottle of vanilla extract contains about 24 teaspoons.
When cooking with vanilla powder, keep in mind that this ingredient doesn’t dissolve like vanilla extract, so there will be lovely flecks of vanilla in the final product. Vanilla powder is especially useful when making recipes that are sensitive to additional liquid, like French macarons, or recipes that will be cooked at higher temperatures. Vanilla powder is also great for making vanilla-scented sugar and baked goods where vanilla is the featured flavor. There’s a chance that once you taste the bolder vanilla flavor of the vanilla powder, you’ll want to ditch the extracts altogether and use vanilla powder in all of your baking.
Price at time of publish: $20 for 1 ounce
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon | Extract Type: Powder | Sizes Available: 1 ounce
"I love sprinkling this vanilla powder into frostings, sweet doughs, and custards for the beautiful flecks of vanilla without adding any additional liquid to my recipes. Since the raw vanilla is stronger than any extracts, I don't have to add as much as I would in a traditional recipe to get the same bold vanilla flavor." — Jenny Kellerhals, Baking Expert for The Spruce Eats
Simply Organic Non-Alcoholic Vanilla Flavoring
Made with real organic vanilla beans
No additional sugar, flavors, or colors
Higher price than alcohol-based extracts
Most pure vanilla extracts contain alcohol, which is used to extract flavor and create vanilla bean infusions. But you can also find vanilla extracts that utilize glycerin for the same purpose, instead of alcohol. There's a small selection of alcohol-free vanilla extracts on the market, but the Organic Non-Alcoholic Vanilla Flavoring produced by Simply Organic is one of our favorites for anyone who prefers to remain alcohol-free in their cooking. It's made with pure organic vanilla beans and organic glycerin and doesn't have any added sugars.
Don't be thrown by the term "Vanilla Flavoring" in the product name here. The FDA requires a vanilla extract to have a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid, and that liquid must be 35 percent alcohol. Since this extract isn't made with alcohol, it doesn't officially meet that requirement, even though it's still made with real organic Madagascan vanilla beans. This particular extract doesn't contain any additional flavors, colors, or GMOs. The price of a 4-ounce bottle is a little higher than other extracts on the market, but it's well worth it if you want a high-quality, alcohol-free option and don't have time to make it yourself.
Price at time of publish: $20 for 4 ounces
Bean Type: Madagascar Bourbon | Extract Type: Organic alcohol-free pure extract | Sizes Available: 4 ounces
While most people consider vanilla extract an ingredient for baking and sweet recipes, it’s also very versatile as a seasoning for savory food. Next time you’re making a marinade for pork or fish, try adding a dash of vanilla to really bring the flavors together. Fresh salads topped with tropical fruits and berries may benefit from a little vanilla mixed into the vinaigrette, or any recipe with a high acid or lemon content—including tomato sauce.
The Hawaiian Vanilla Co. Pure Vanilla Extract
Family-owned farm and company
Different alcohol bases available
Not available in stores, must be shipped
The Hawaiian Vanilla Company was founded in 1998 on the big island of Hawai’i and was the very first commercial vanilla producer to sow roots in Hawaii. Since the vanilla orchid only grows within 25 degrees of the equator, Hawaii is the only place in the US where the climate is just right for vanilla to grow. The family-owned vanilla company has faced plenty of ups and downs cultivating this notoriously temperamental plant, but the Hawaiian Vanilla Company continues to thrive, producing about 500 pounds of vanilla beans per year.
In return, the company makes a bold vanilla extract that’s double the strength of traditional extracts. The standard pure vanilla extract offered is made with neutral alcohol as the spirit, but the company also makes vanilla extracts with both dark rum and whiskey, which are offered in a trio set. The only downside is that these extracts aren’t readily sold in stores in the contiguous 48 states, so you’ll have to order directly from the Hawaiian Vanilla Company online.
Price at time of publish: $27 for 4 ounces
Bean Type: Hawaiian | Extract Type: Double-Strength pure extract | Sizes Available: 4 ounces
Watkins Clear Vanilla Flavor
Keeps foods bright white
Reduces impact of vanilla production
Economical alternative to pure extracts
Less complex flavor than pure vanilla
Nine times out of ten, we’re going to reach for the beautifully complex and fragrant vanilla extracts, pastes, and powders when baking our favorite treats. But we can’t deny that some projects will demand the use of a clear extract to maintain the crisp white or otherwise vivid colors of the project instead of a darker pure extract. In times like these, we reach for a bottle of the Watkins Clear Vanilla Flavor, because it’s technically got double the "flavor" of standard extracts and we only have to use half as much. Granted, all of that flavor is coming from artificial flavors, and will likely be less complex than robust pure vanilla with its 300 flavor compounds, but if you’re setting out to make an all-white cake, chances are that looks are more important than deep flavors here.
And that’s fine! Because technically, vanillin created in a lab is chemically identical to vanillin extracted from vanilla orchids. Furthermore, reducing how much pure vanilla extract you consume helps, even in a small way, reduce the environmental and social impacts of the vanilla industry at large — and that’s something you can feel really good about while you’re whipping up a delicious and perfectly white frosting.
Price at time of publish: $2 for 2 ounces
Bean Type: Artificial flavor | Extract Type: Double-Strength clear flavor | Sizes Available: 11 ounces
The top spot goes to Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract because of its rich, high-quality vanilla flavor. Want pure all-natural vanilla flavor that doesn't break the bank? Try McCormick All Natural Pure Vanilla Extract.
What to Look for When Buying Vanilla Extract
Vanilla Bean Origins
Vanilla beans are the seed pods (technically fruits) of the vanilla orchid plant. Once the arduous process of manual pollination was discovered and refined in the 1840s, the large-scale production of vanilla was set into motion—prompting the creation of industrial extracts. Not sure which vanilla you’re buying? Like good wine and coffee, the country of origin should be on the label. Occasionally, the extract may be a blend, and if no country of origin is listed, it is likely from Southeast Asia.
Eighty percent of the world’s vanilla is now grown in Madagascar. It is most commonly referred to as Bourbon or Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. Bourbon refers not to the liquor, but the island just to the east of Madagascar, where that particular vanilla was originally cultivated. Madagascar vanilla is known for its richness, high quality, and consistent flavor. The flavor is strong enough to stand up to, and enhance, equally intense flavors in both sweet and savory recipes.
Vanilla is native to Mexico and was carried across the globe in the 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese merchants and sailors. While no longer the leading producer of vanilla in the world, Mexican vanilla is still highly regarded as the finest vanilla on the market. Known to be more woody and spiced compared with other vanillas, this vanilla is lovely when showcased on its own or in conjunction with warm baking spices like nutmeg, allspice, and cloves.
Tahitian vanilla is celebrated for its floral and fruity cherry-like notes. It gained popularity for its unique flavor profile over the last decade or so; consequently, it can come at a higher price than other vanillas. Some of the delicate tropical flavors can be lost when using this vanilla in heavier recipes, so to really get the most out of this particular vanilla, try using it in cold or frozen recipes.
Indonesia and other tropical regions
While the three regions above are considered the main sources of the highest-quality vanilla, Indonesia and other tropical vanilla-farming regions also produce vanilla in relatively large quantities. Where these vanillas differ is in their drying process. Vanilla is traditionally dried in the sun, taking a month or more to cure. In Indonesia, vanilla beans are typically dried over fire, expediting the drying and curing process, and adding a smoky flavor to some of the vanilla crops.
Vanilla extract is sold in as small a quantity as 1 ounce and up to a gallon by some producers. Don’t despair if some of those larger bottles of single-origin vanilla extracts are cost-prohibitive; 2- and 4-ounce options are typically more reasonably priced and can last for a decent amount of time, depending on how often it is used.
For more delicate recipes like ice creams, custards, and buttercreams where the flavors of the vanilla are really going to shine through, it’s worth it to splurge on the higher-priced vanilla—perhaps in a smaller quantity—to get your recipe made. For larger baking projects or baked goods that will be cooked at temperatures over 300 degrees Fahrenheit, a less expensive pure vanilla extract without specific regionality listed will get the job done and is a little lighter on the wallet in larger quantities. The price of extracts usually decreases a little by volume, so you’ll probably be getting a better deal in the long run with a larger bottle.
For an idea of how much use you’ll get out of your bottle of extract, 1 tablespoon is about 1/2 of an ounce. Also, switching between different types of vanilla products is easy to convert:
1 vanilla bean = 1 tablespoon vanilla extract = 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste = 1 tablespoon vanilla powder.
Vanilla extract is typically made by infusing vanilla beans in alcohol and water, and then straining out the beans at peak infusion. Extracts can also include sugar, and occasionally additional flavors. Depending on the type of vanilla product you’re using, it may also include a thickening agent. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients listed on the label, the better the extract.
In some cases, you may find extracts in single-strength or double-strength (also called single- and double-fold). This means that a ratio of about 100 beans infused in a gallon of alcohol and water was used to create single-strength vanilla extract. Double-strength extract doubles the concentration of beans in the gallon. Double-strength vanilla extract is most commonly used for industrial baking or highly sensitive projects where additional liquid could adversely affect the recipe.
You may also see an extract labeled as "concentrated," but this does not mean that the strength of the vanilla extract is greater. In these cases, the synthetically produced “vanillin” has been added to a watered-down vanilla extract to produce a lower-cost alternative to pure vanilla extract.
The price of vanilla beans and vanilla extract can be surprising to those buying either for the first time. The beans are commonly sold in grocery stores in glass jars with two beans, costing around $15. For recipes requiring multiple beans, vanilla can easily become the most expensive ingredient in your recipe.
The high price of vanilla—both beans and extract—is a reflection of the labor-intensive, and often fickle nature of vanilla farming, beginning with the years-long process of growing individual vanilla orchid vines, hand-pollinating each flower in a window of time that lasts less than a day, and carefully protecting the pods as they grow.
After the bean pods have been harvested, the long curing process begins, starting with blanching the beans to halt their development, followed by drying the beans in the sun by day, and then sweating them tightly wrapped in fabric by night. This process ferments the beans, which takes at least a month, and is done completely by hand. Then, the beans are conditioned before being sold whole or turned into extracts.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that the price of vanilla can be staggering, especially as you move up in both the quality and quantity of vanilla used. Luckily there is a range of vanilla prices suited to the intensity of your cooking needs.
On the lower end of the price spectrum are imitation vanilla extracts and extracts that are blended or produced quickly, which can be found for less than $10. If you’re looking for organic, alcohol-free, or sugar-free options, the extracts will likely cost more, anywhere between $10 to $20 for a 2- to 4-ounce bottle. Once you begin purchasing vanilla with more distinctive flavors from specific regions, you will likely see the price begin to increase anywhere from $20 to $80 or more. Vanilla bean pastes and powders are both specialty ingredients and are typically more expensive than vanilla extracts, based on their package size.
Types of Vanilla Flavorings
Fresh vanilla beans should be purchased looking a little pudgy with a nice oily gloss. While you may not be able to take the beans out of the container at the store, they will be a little sticky to the touch, with the smell of vanilla and bark. Beans that are on the older side will be dry and crumble or shred when cutting, and it will be difficult to remove the seeds for cooking. Dry beans can be set aside for liquid infusions that can rehydrate the bean while soaking up the vanilla flavors, or for making homemade vanilla sugar.
Vanilla beans can be used by splitting and scraping the tiny, juicy beans out of the pod and into your mix, or infusing into a liquid recipe with the bean pod included for additional flavor. When including the bean pod, you’ll want to make sure you can remove it at the end of a recipe. Given the sticky and oily nature of pure vanilla beans, it’s best to go with an extract option for cake batters and other baked goods that might be difficult to thoroughly incorporate a sticky bean clump into.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Pure vanilla extract is considered the most versatile of the vanilla products on the market. It’s made by infusing vanilla beans in a minimum of 35 percent alcohol. The vanilla is extracted either by gently heating the liquid, which expedites the extraction process, or by a cold extraction, which typically takes longer and costs more. The benefits of the cold extraction process include a wider range of flavors from the vanilla bean, which has over 300 flavor compounds.
Cold extraction vanilla should be used for cold food applications to preserve the additional flavors. Once it is heated to over 220 degrees Fahrenheit, many of those additional compounds are cooked off.
While most of the alcohol in vanilla extract evaporates in the cooking process, there are also alcohol-free options. In these cases, the vanilla is extracted using glycerin instead of alcohol. The quality of the extract is still predominately based on the origin of the beans, not the alcohol or glycerin used, although it is typically a little more expensive than its alcohol-based counterparts.
Imitation Vanilla Extract
Imitation vanilla extract skips the vanilla bean entirely and relies solely on the synthetically produced chemical vanillin. Vanillin has the same chemical structure as the vanillin compound naturally found in vanilla beans, but the extract itself lacks the complexity of the hundreds of other flavor compounds found in pure vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla extract is either sold clear or with an additional caramel color to mimic pure extract.
Imitation vanilla should be reserved for large projects where the price of pure extract would be prohibitive, or recipes where the quality of the vanilla plays a negligible role in the final baked goods. Some people claim that imitation extract has a slightly chemical or artificial aftertaste, so it’s best used in products that are fully cooked to minimize any unpleasant aftertaste.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla bean paste is the thicker, visually exciting counterpart to vanilla extract, blending both vanilla extract with vanilla seeds. For those who prefer the ease of an extract but also want the visual appeal of vanilla seeds speckled in their final dish, vanilla bean paste is the way to go. It is thickened with the addition of gum and sugar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has a more intense flavor. Bean pastes or extracts with seeds included can be used in both hot and cold cooking applications and are typically more expensive than vanilla extract.
Vanilla Bean Powder
Vanilla powder was developed as a dry, alcohol- and liquid-free, and sometimes color-neutral alternative to whole beans and extracts. It is made by spraying pure vanilla extract onto maltodextrin (typically made of corn), which dries the extract on contact. It can be dissolved in liquids, but can also be used in dry spice rubs, tea blends, or as an addition to regular baking recipes. If you are looking for vanilla flavoring without the brown color, choose a white-hued vanilla bean powder.
Vanilla extract is incredibly shelf-stable thanks to its curing and alcohol base, and it can last years stored in a dark cabinet away from heat. Some people report that the flavor is even better after sitting. With that said, you don’t need to age your vanilla extract to get a great product. Buy what you think you’ll use in a matter of months.
Vanilla beans, paste, and powder are also shelf-stable. All vanilla products should be tightly wrapped or sealed with a lid and stored in a cool area away from sunlight. Most extract bottles are dark in color to help prevent light from damaging the extract. Avoid storing vanilla products in the refrigerator; vanilla beans may grow mold when refrigerated due to the extra moisture, and beans, as well as extracts, may pick up the ambient flavors of the refrigerator during storage.
After you’ve scraped a vanilla bean pod, you can make extra use of it by storing it at room temperature in a jar filled with sugar to make your own vanilla-infused sugar. This process also works with salt for a moody vanilla-sea-salt garnish sprinkled over glazed ribs or a chocolate caramel tart.
Where does vanilla extract come from?
Vanilla extract is made with vanilla beans, which are pods that grow on pollinated orchids. These aren’t just any orchids though—vanilla orchids are a variety of tropical orchid that grows in a long vine and typically requires special care. Once these orchids develop bean pods, the vanilla beans are harvested, cured, and soaked in alcohol to create vanilla extract.
Does vanilla extract go bad?
A pure vanilla extract made with an alcohol base has an extremely long shelf life and doesn’t tend to go bad. With that said, the intensity of the flavor will diminish with prolonged storage, which is why quality extracts are stored in darker bottles. If you’ve had a bottle of extract sitting on the shelf for more than a couple of years, it won’t hurt to use it, but it also won’t add much flavor to your baked goods. It’s best to buy about as much vanilla extract as you reasonably think you’re going to use in the next few months.
Is vanilla extract gluten-free?
Theoretically, vanilla extract is gluten-free. Pure vanilla extract is made with distilled alcohol, which, unless specified, could be grain alcohol-based. But most of the gluten is removed in the distillation process and registers well below the limit of being legally classified as gluten-free. If you are primarily concerned about working with a gluten-free product, there are vanilla extracts on the market explicitly created for gluten-free bakers.
What is a substitute for vanilla extract?
If you’re in the middle of a baking project, only to open your cabinets and find you’re out of vanilla extract, don't worry. Vanilla extract is a lovely addition to recipes, but it mainly helps round out the flavors in your cooking. Unless it’s the main flavor ingredient (like in vanilla ice cream), consider substituting some strongly brewed coffee in chocolate, brown-sugar-based, or nutty recipes, or using almond extract in fruity, citrusy, or buttery recipes.
How much alcohol is in vanilla extract?
To be considered a pure vanilla extract, the extract must contain at least 35 percent alcohol. Many extracts will list the percentage of alcohol on the bottle.
Is vanilla extract vegan?
Yes, both pure and artificial vanilla extracts are typically vegan.
How We Researched
To compile this list, our team of editors and contributors spent hours researching the best vanilla extracts on the market, evaluating their key features—like bean type, origin, and price—in addition to reviews from customers and other trusted sources. We then used this research to assign a star rating from one to five (five being the best; one being the worst) to certain vanilla extracts on the list.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Donna Currie has written for The Spruce Eats since 2016. A seasoned recipe developer and gadget tester, she also wrote the cookbook Make Ahead Bread.
This article and buying guide was updated and written by Jenny Kellerhals, a professional pastry chef in New York City and a freelance food writer. Jenny started baking professionally over a decade ago and enjoys testing ingredients and baking techniques to achieve the best possible results.
Amanda McDonald is an editor at The Spruce Eats and has over seven years of experience researching, writing, and editing about all things food — from what new products are at the grocery store to chef-approved hacks that keep tricky leftovers fresh for days. She also updated this article to include the most up-to-date information.
- Jenny Kellerhals, Baking Expert for The Spruce Eats
Food and Drug Administration. How GMOs are regulated for food and plant safety in the United States.
Food and Drug Administration. Gluten-free labeling of foods.
Federal Food and Drug Administration. Food Dressings and Flavorings.
United States Department of Agriculture. Labeling organic products.