A Guide to Using Extracts and Oils in Your Holiday Baking

updated May 1, 2019
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That well-loved vanilla extract is really only the beginning when it comes to using flavors to enhance your baking. You can infuse almond, peppermint, and even coffee into your cookies and cakes with the help of extracts and oils. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

First, extracts and oils are not the same thing.

You’re probably more familiar with extracts, like vanilla, which are made by extracting the flavor of an ingredient into a liquid base, which is usually alcohol. So to make vanilla extract, vanilla beans are steeped in alcohol until their flavor and aroma infuse that alcohol.

Oils, however, are the essential oil squeezed from the ingredient itself — so vanilla oil is made from squeezing the beans to extract their oil. Oils tend to be more concentrated and pure-tasting in flavor.

Know when to use which.

Both extracts and oils are used to infuse flavor into baked goods, but they do so in different ways. Since extracts are less intense, they’re usually added when you want the flavor to play in the background rather than take a starring roll. A little peppermint extract can get along well with chocolate in a recipe like cookies or brownies, but it won’t overwhelm. When you want something more pronounced, reach for oils. Since they are more concentrated, you’ll get a stronger, clearer flavor. Orange or lemon oil is particularly lovely in a basic buttercream frosting or a simple pound cake.

Oh, and how about if you want to swap in one for another in a recipe? Remember that oils are stronger than extracts so you’ll need less.

1 teaspoon of extract = 3 to 5 drops of oil

Remember to refrigerate oils.

Extracts are shelf-stable and will keep for six months to one year in your pantry, but oils don’t have as long of a life. They should be refrigerated after opening to keep them from going rancid, and used within a few months.

How do you like to use extracts and oils in your holiday baking?