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What Is Vanilla Extract? Uses, Best Storage Tips & More

You’ve probably heard of vanilla being used in many desserts and drinks.

From coffees to baked goods, this ingredient is even used in savory food items and has been around for a while. 

You might also wonder how this versatile flavor is extracted, how you can use it, and if it’s vegan and gluten-free. 

Let’s start with some information to answer the most basic question: “What is vanilla extract?”

Table Of Contents

What is vanilla extract?

Vanilla extract is a liquid solution derived from a vanilla bean grown in a pod of a tropical orchid plant.

The bean is then soaked in the solution for several months, during which time the flavor is extracted from it. 

Vanilla dates back to the 15th century, where it was first cultivated in Mexico.

The flavor is so strong and concentrated that only a small amount needs to be added to recipes for its taste and aroma.

This is why vanilla extract is often regarded as ‘liquid gold.’

There are variations of vanilla extract, called imitation vanilla extract or artificial vanilla flavoring, that are
cheaper than pure vanilla extract.

These artificial vanilla solutions are usually synthetically made and only half as rich in flavor as the real deal. 

Nevertheless, they are generally more economical and they can still be used in baked goods. 

Vanilla beans, pure vanilla extract, and other products that use the vanilla plant itself are costly because of a variety of issues with where they are grown, including weather that has destroyed crops.

Does vanilla extract go bad?

If you’re using pure vanilla extract and not artificial vanilla, you should not be worried about it going bad. 

Pure vanilla extract can last for years because it’s alcohol-based.

Due to this, the extract becomes more concentrated and intense as the alcohol starts evaporating over-time.

The Wilton blog says that imitation vanilla has a shelf life of about six to 12 months AFTER the expiration date shown on the bottle. 

Is vanilla extract gluten-free?

Since the vanilla extract is a solution that contains vanilla, alcohol, and water, the question arises whether the vanilla extract is gluten-free or not.

Vanilla extract is considered gluten-free as the alcohol distillation process in making the extract removes traces of gluten.

The alcohol level is also well below 20ppm after the distillation process; thus, it is free of gluten.

That said, be sure to read all labels, since every package is different. 

Is vanilla extract vegan?

Almost all vanilla extracts are considered vegan.

Since the vanilla bean itself is a plant, vanilla beans are vegan. Pure vanilla extract is probably vegan, but check your labels.

However, artificial vanilla extracts can contain castoreum obtained from the anal glands of a beaver.

But because extracting castoreum is a rather arduous and expensive task, vanilla extracts that contain castoreum are relatively rare.

If you’re not buying pure vanilla extract, make sure you do your research, read labels, and contact the manufacturer to know whether the artificial one is 100% vegan. 

What is the difference between vanilla & vanilla extract?

Vanilla is a flavor used in cooking, a spice derived from the vanilla plant, which is a type of orchid with bean pods that are dried and turned into the vanilla flavoring that’s sold in stores.

Vanilla extract is also a flavor of vanilla but is extracted from soaking the vanilla beans in an alcohol solution for months.

So “vanilla,” on its own, could be considered the plant, the pod, the spice, the extract, or an overall flavor.

Vanilla contains “vanillin” a chemical compound derived from the vanilla plant. Both pure and imitation forms contain this chemical compound, but at different levels.

The main difference between imitation vanilla flavor and pure vanilla extract is that the latter contains more alcohol.

There’s about 30% alcohol in vanilla extract and only 2-3% in vanilla flavor.

The imitation (also called artificial) vanilla may also contain glycerin, which is not present in pure vanilla extract.

Out of the two, vanilla extract is more potent and richer in vanilla flavor. From the University of Florida and the FDA:

Only extract from two types of vanilla, V. planifolia and V. × tahitensis, can be sold as “vanilla extract” under the Code of Federal Regulations (Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 CFR169.175 and CFR169.3).

The regulation dictates the solvent for vanilla extract to be not less than 35% ethyl alcohol by volume with 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans at 25% moisture content per gallon of solvent.

How to store vanilla extract

You have to store your vanilla extract in a dark environment, away from heat, and at room temperature, preferably 60-80°F.

You can keep your vanilla extract in a cupboard as long as it is not near a stove or any heat source (like a hot light or vent).

It’s not advised to store vanilla extract in a refrigerator or freezer as that will spoil its concentration. 

Extract (plant and alcohol) without any extra ingredients like sugar, flavorings, or glycerin will have a longer shelf life, so your small bottle of pure vanilla extract, kept tightly closed and properly stored, can last for years. 

Beanilla says to store your vanilla extract at room temp and out of direct sunlight (with a nifty recipe for making your own vanilla extract from vanilla beans, too!)

Amber glass bottles like these are good for storing vanilla. 

How to use vanilla extract

You can use this flavor in a variety of ways in your desserts.

The most common way to use vanilla extract is in desserts, but it goes well with savory items too.

Even if you’re making brownies or chocolate cake, adding a bit of vanilla extract can bring out the flavor of chocolate more intensely.

You can even add a few drops of vanilla extract to your iced coffee to elevate its taste. Here are some of the other ways you can use it:

  • Add it in cookies, crème Brulee, and CookingChew’s Easy Vanilla Custard and other desserts.
  • Use it with different kinds of fancy smoothies and cocktails.
  • Elevate the box cake mix you have in your pantry with an extra teaspoon of imitation vanilla. 
  • Add a few drops to caramelized roasted vegetables to enhance their sweet taste.
  • Use it as a substitute for wine in your risotto by adding a few drops of it.

The bottom line

Vanilla extract is easily one the perfect flavors to add to savory foods, desserts, and even drinks. 

But if you want to go the extra mile, try making home-made vanilla ice cream.

Here’s one that uses evaporated milk, condensed milk, and pure vanilla.

It’s fresh, natural, and packed with luscious vanilla flavor.