Ingredient Intelligence

These Expert-Approved Vanilla Extract Substitutes Work Like a Charm

published Apr 29, 2022
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Moistening a cotton bowl with vanilla extract, to put into a bowl
Credit: Sarah Crowley

Vanilla extract is one of the most universal flavor enhancers in the kitchen. Pure vanilla extract, or “good vanilla” as Ina Garten would say, is an essential part of sweets like this angel food cake, basic vanilla buttercream, and these pantry cocoa brownies. “Vanilla complements a wide variety of common flavors, which is why you see it in almost everything,” says Kierin Baldwin, a chef-instructor of pastry and baking arts at the Institute of Culinary Education. But if you’re about to whip up a dessert and realize you don’t have vanilla on hand, don’t worry — there’s probably something in your kitchen you can use. 

“If you just want a bit of background flavor similar to what vanilla provides, you can substitute another sweet and mellow taste,” says Baldwin. While nothing will replicate the exact taste of vanilla, you might discover a substitute you like just as much as vanilla. 

Experiment with these vanilla extract substitutes and see which ones work best for you. Additionally, if you’re in the market for a DIY project, you can make vanilla extract at home yourself

Credit: Leela Cyd

Whole Vanilla Beans

Bottled vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a combination of alcohol and water, which extracts the flavor from the beans. But if you are looking for a fancy substitute for vanilla extract you can also go straight to the source: the vanilla bean, which consists of the whole vanilla pod and the small vanilla seeds on the inside. You can find bottled whole vanilla pods at some grocery stores. The seeds can be scraped out and added directly to dishes, and the leftover pod can be simmered in milk or sit in granulated sugar for vanilla-flavored milk or sugar. 

One teaspoon of vanilla extract is equal to one 2-inch piece of vanilla bean, so 1 typical vanilla bean will equal 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) extract. See our guide to using vanilla beans to learn more.  

Vanilla Bean Paste

Vanilla bean paste is made from the small seeds inside of a vanilla bean pod. The vanilla pods are split open so that the black seeds can be scraped out and collected to make a paste. The paste is typically sold in small jars and is often used as a flavorful (and arguably, fancier) alternative to pure vanilla extract. Baldwin recommends using vanilla bean paste as a substitute for vanilla extract in dishes where vanilla is the main flavor, such as homemade vanilla ice cream. Plus, you’ll get a dessert with lovely black specks of vanilla seeds throughout. To substitute vanilla bean paste for vanilla extract, check the label on the jar, as concentrations can vary from brand to brand. See this guide to vanilla to learn more. 

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup definitely isn’t just for pancakes — it makes for a good vanilla extract substitute, too. Real maple syrup adds a lovely caramel-like flavor to dishes and is a particularly nice addition to classic fruit cobblers and these banana bread pancakes. To add it to a baking recipe, try using it in the same amounts that you would for vanilla extract and then gradually increase if you prefer a stronger maple syrup flavor. Keep in mind that maple syrup is very sweet, so you might need to adjust the amount of sugar in your recipe. 


Honey can add a nice warm, rich flavor to a variety of baked goods, like this apple galette or these homemade graham crackers. To use honey as a substitute for vanilla, start with equal amounts and build from there. Try it in recipes like this blueberry oat quick bread or these coffee cake cookies. As with maple syrup, when using honey as a baking substitute, you might need to cut back on the amount of sugar in the overall dish. 

Orange Zest

With its sweet, bright flavor, citrus zest is a great stand-in for vanilla when you want to add depth of flavor to baked goods, says Baldwin. Start by using around 1/2 teaspoon of orange zest as a substitute for 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract in recipes like strawberry cupcakes and these birthday cake sprinkle crinkle cookies. Orange zest obviously doesn’t taste like vanilla, but it will add the same brightness that vanilla extract adds to desserts.


Although nutmeg is commonly associated with holiday desserts and treats, you don’t have to wait until November and December to pull it out of the cabinet. The warm and sweet notes of nutmeg can make it a good stand-in for vanilla in banana pudding cake, spiced Bundt cake, or a basic buttermilk quick bread. Try using around 1/4 of a teaspoon of nutmeg in place of 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and gradually increase if you want more flavor.

Dark Rum, Bourbon, Whiskey, Brandy, or Vanilla Vodka

Vanilla extract is produced by soaking vanilla pods in alcohol to extract the flavor, which gives the dishes it’s used in a slightly alcoholic flavor (especially if they are not cooked). Likewise, liquors like rum, bourbon, whiskey, and brandy give that faint booziness as well as their own special flavor when used in baked goods and desserts. Additionally, the oak barrels that liquors like bourbon are aged in can give the spirits a vanilla-like flavor and aroma. And if you happen to have vanilla vodka on hand, you can certainly use it to give a bit of vanilla flavor to your dessert. Baldwin recommends using an equivalent amount of the liquor of your choice in place of the vanilla extract. Try spirits in dishes like pecan pie or brownies.

Almond Extract

If you like the flavor of marzipan and pignoli cookies, chances are you’ll like the strong, bright, slightly floral flavor almond extract brings to desserts and baked goods. Almond extract is much more potent than vanilla, so a small amount will go even further than the usual amount of vanilla extract. Start by using one-quarter to one-half the amount of vanilla extract called for in your recipe. Because almond extract usually pairs well with cherries, you can try using it in any desserts that calls for them, like this easy cherry pie.