Cheap vanilla extract substitute for baking and cooking?
August 12, 2018 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I love the taste of real (not synthetic) vanilla but prices have gone up so much I'm wondering how to flavor things without natural vanilla extract.

I have looked at vanilla beans and vanilla powder, neither of which are cheaper than vanilla extract though I guess with the pods I can make vanilla sugar.

I have considered using coconut oil and spices like cardamon and nutmeg to add flavor without using vanilla. What other healthy substitutes can you suggest? I'm looking for things that can add a rich creamy flavor to say, oatmeal, pancakes or beverages.
posted by whitelotus to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The thing is, vanillin is about 90% of the flavor of vanilla extract.

The reason you can taste the difference between real extract and artificial vanilla flavor is that the artificial doesn’t have the hundreds of other compounds that add richer overtones.

My point is, consider giving artificial vanilla flavor another try: get a brand that only uses vanillin, and you are not eating some weird exotic factory made chemical, you are eating a strict subset of vanilla extract.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:01 AM on August 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Cinnamon, ginger, possibly even turmeric. You could replace your normal sweetener with honey.
Make your oatmeal or pancakes with apple juice maybe? Not creamy, but full and rich, sure.
posted by Too-Ticky at 6:17 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My grandmother used almond extract as her default instead of vanilla. It looks like the real stuff is cheaper than vanilla, but not seriously cheap; however you need to use much less. (Really less, and don't let it creep up. People who use almond seem to get habituated to it until the taste is obnoxiously strong to non-habitual users.)
posted by BibiRose at 6:42 AM on August 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah Cook's Illustrated did a big vanilla showdown a long time ago and found that for baking a lot of people couldn't tell, if you used one of the better imitation vanillas. That said, my goto has always been MACE, the thing that makes donuts taste donutty. It's a little gritty so you need to be careful what you put it in (it tastes great in coffee but cruds it all up). I'm from Vermont so we also put maple syrup in everything and this morning's coffee has turmeric and pepper in it and it's surprisingly good.
posted by jessamyn at 6:51 AM on August 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The thing about vanilla is you can get ONE vanilla bean, chop it up into 1-2" lengths, put it in a jar with alcohol and a bit of water, and not only will it make vanilla extract, when you run out of vanilla extract, you can use the SAME BEAN. For years!

precise recipe in picture (this is the person who taught me about reusing the bean.)
posted by aniola at 7:16 AM on August 12, 2018 [21 favorites]

Came in to say what aniola said. My wife made her own Vanilla extract with Vanilla Beans and cheap vodka. Lasted for years.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:18 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Note: I do not keep liquor in the house so making my own would require my buying a bottle of liquor in addition to the price of beans. Which would be pretty pricey in total and beyond my budget.
posted by whitelotus at 7:30 AM on August 12, 2018

I have 3 grocery stores in my neighborhood. At 2 of them, vanilla beans are like $12 per bean. At the third (an Acme, which is a subsidiary of Albertson's and a sister store to Jewel Osco), vanilla beans are like $4 for 2 beans. If you have any of those stores near you, check them out for cheap vanilla beans!
posted by coppermoss at 7:36 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

You don't have to buy good booze. Get a $5 bottle of vodka, it'll be great.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 7:42 AM on August 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Just echoing masquesoporfavor: if you're making your own extract, you want the cheapest vodka you can find. If it costs more than $10/750ml, you're looking at vodka that's too nice. I used to buy Burnett's vodka when I did a lot of stuff like this... about $6. In fact, if you're doing a small batch (1-2 beans) you don't even want that much vodka. A 200ml or 375ml bottle is plenty.

Overall, yeah, vanilla prices have gone through the roof in the last few years (blame increased demand and crop issues in Madagascar). It's been a huge issue for independent ice cream shops, for instance.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 8:17 AM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

This came up on a CBC radio segment. The vanilla bean expert basically said that if you're baking stuff, artificial vanilla should be fine. If you're not baking with vanilla, then you're not going to be able to capture the taste of real vanilla. You can try matcha green tea powder or mint syrup flavouring?
posted by DetriusXii at 8:40 AM on August 12, 2018

Almond flavoring works really well as a substitute.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:46 AM on August 12, 2018

I wonder if you can find a bulk source of vanilla extract that's much cheaper than the prices you're seeing in stores. The Davis Food Co-op sells it from a tap for something like $0.90 per ounce. (I refill a quart jar there once every couple of years!) This particular source probably isn't helpful if you aren't in Northern California, but if they sell at that price, surely others do too?
posted by aws17576 at 9:51 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, but to answer your question directly, you might see if you like orange blossom water as a flavoring. You can get it at Middle Eastern grocery stores for around $3 per 10-ounce bottle. (The flavor is quite different from vanilla, but you seem open to trying new flavorings generally.)
posted by aws17576 at 9:56 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm looking for things that can add a rich creamy flavor to say, oatmeal, pancakes or beverages.

I am trying malted milk powder--my current jar is from King Arthur, and their label has suggested uses that include pancakes and drinks.

Maybe some nut toppings could add a "creamy" flavor? Almonds, pistachios, pecans, pinenuts...

How about floral or fruity flavors? Bergamot or Earl Grey tea, rose, lavender...I once had a really nice rose-flavored gelato that was surprisingly creamy and refreshing at the same time; it would probably work well as a shake. For cardamom, I find that pairing it with something else like fruit (mango cardamom shake!) or ginger really makes it remarkable and enjoyable.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 10:23 AM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

We spent less than $20 for a bunch of vanilla beans, plus a couple bottle of rotgut vodka, and we make our own vanilla extract.

It takes a while to be rrady, so buy a final bottle of fake stuff then order your beans so you can start ASAP!!
posted by wenestvedt at 2:32 PM on August 12, 2018

I'm sorry to be the jerk who just gives you a different artificial flavoring, but I'm very impressed with this imitation black walnut extract (bought on a whim last Christmas). I use it in place of vanilla all the time. Of course, they taste nothing alike....but if you like black walnuts, that's not a problem.
posted by grandiloquiet at 4:14 PM on August 12, 2018

Left field, but if you're looking for a "milky" flavour, Milk Oolong might be a dark horse candidate for making ethanol extracts from.

The real stuff actually tastes like that, nothing is added. When steeped, the smell feels like foamed milk but not exactly.

If you can't find a reasonably small quantity of it to try/ experiment with, memail me and I'd be happy to share some with you. My local looseleaf shop usually carries it (they only don't when they can't find a batch that meets their - high - standards), and I need to pick some up for myself anyway.
posted by porpoise at 6:17 PM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. Unfortunately, the alcohol is my biggest problem. I'm not in the U.S. and alcohol is subject to heavy taxation here so cheap vodka just doesn't exist. Ditto for exotic things like imitation black walnut extract.

I might be able to find orange blossom or rosewater but it would require a long trip downtown.

I believe almond extract is made from bitter almonds, how much can I use without poisoning myself?
posted by whitelotus at 8:19 PM on August 12, 2018

Response by poster: Ok, I think I found a possible solution. Vanilla honey. I can get cheap honey easily. I can't find cheap beans but it's gotta be cheaper than buying vanilla extract.
posted by whitelotus at 9:19 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

If internet people are to be believed, almond extract does not contain cyanide, which makes sense.
posted by jessamyn at 5:53 AM on August 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Jessamyn!
posted by whitelotus at 5:08 PM on August 13, 2018

Best answer: My friends up in Canada use sorghum syrup as a sweetener in baked goods instead of vanilla. It tastes very distinctive and sort of floral like vanilla, but it's not overpowering.

If you're buying beans anyway for honey, you can also make vanilla sugar for recipes that need a specific moisture content where honey wouldn't work. Same process: put sugar in an airtight jar, add bean, refill with more sugar as needed. One bean will flavor a surprising amount of sugar.
posted by ananci at 11:55 AM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older What is there likely to be 15 to 50 of within...   |   I Like Space. My Girlfriend Wants To Be Attached... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.