Imitation Vanilla Extract 101 & FAQ

From cakes to pancakes, muffins to drinks, cooks and bakers have used imitation vanilla extract for years to add great flavor to their food. In this post we’ll dive deep into vanilla extract, answering your most popular questions!

If you love to bake, chances are you have a bottle of pure or imitation vanilla extract in your pantry. Walk the isles of your local grocery store and you may also see vanilla beans, vanilla paste or vanilla flavoring. It’s enough to make any baker wonder where the “real” vanilla is hiding!

Though they all may sound the same, pure vanilla extract, imitation extract and even flavoring each have their place in the kitchen. Let’s take a deeper dive into what makes these variations anything but ‘vanilla’!

What is vanilla?

Vanilla is a flavoring derived from an orchid plant. Vanilla beans have been used for centuries as a way to add and enhance the flavors of sweet treats (much like salt enhances savory foods).

Though vanilla beans on the expensive side, they’re great for adding amazing flavors to your cakes. Simply cut the pods open lengthwise and scrape out the vanilla flavor from inside the pods. You can even add the pods into sugar or vodka to create infused ingredients!

Vanilla beans are wonderful in delicate recipes, such as ice cream or custard. However, when it comes to everyday baking, most people will use vanilla in the form of an extract.

Pure or real vanilla extract: In order for a vanilla extract to be called ‘pure’, it must contain vanilla beans, water and alcohol. Pure vanilla extract is often the most expensive option, but well worth the commitment for delicious vanilla flavor.

Imitation vanilla extract: Imitation vanilla extract is much more budget-friendly option for everyday bakers. While it also contains vanilla beans, water and alcohol, it can also contain other flavors to help boost up the vanilla taste.

Vanilla flavoring: For the cheapest option, you can use vanilla flavoring, which gets its flavor from synthetic vanillin. Vanilla flavoring is made without using any real vanilla beans, so it’s much more affordable. It’s also usually sold in larger bottles, so you get more bang for your buck!

Is imitation vanilla the same as vanilla extract?

Though they sound similar, pure and imitation vanilla extract vary in their ingredients. Pure vanilla extract must contain certain amounts of vanilla, water and alcohol in order to be called ‘pure’. Sometimes sugar is added to pump up the flavor, but most pure vanilla extracts only contain those three ingredients.

Imitation vanilla extract contains vanilla, water and alcohol, but the ratios of each differ. Imitation extract can also include other flavors, such as clove oil or pine bark to help make up for the lower ratio of vanilla bean.

The good news is that pure and imitation vanilla taste very similar when used in baked goods. If you’re making cakes and cookies, it’s near impossible to tell the difference between pure and imitation vanilla. You can easily swap one for the other (1:1) when making oven-baked treats.

For delicate or no-bake recipes, such as puddings, custards, ice creams or buttercream frosting, the taste difference is a little more noticeable. These types of recipes rely on the vanilla flavoring as a main flavor, so we suggest using pure vanilla extract (or vanilla beans) for these types of treats.

Does imitation vanilla extract go bad?

While imitation vanilla extract certainly has a long shelf life, it won’t last forever. Stored properly, imitation vanilla extract should last up to 6-12 months after the expiration date. Any longer and the extract may start to lose its quality and flavor.

Pure vanilla extract also lasts a long time and should maintain its delicious flavor and aroma for several years. Like imitation extract, pure vanilla extract should be stored in a cool dark place. Do not refrigerate or freeze your extract, even after opening.

Does imitation vanilla extract have alcohol?

Most extracts, be them imitation or pure, contain some level of alcohol. The alcohol is used to help extract the vanilla flavoring from the beans. Pure vanilla extract must have at least 35% alcohol content by volume. Imitation vanilla often contains less, sometimes as little as 2% alcohol.  

For a truly alcohol-free vanilla, look for extracts that say “alcohol free” on the bottle, or try vanilla flavoring instead, which may not contain any alcohol.

How many calories are in imitation vanilla extract?

On average, 1 teaspoon of imitation vanilla extract contains about 12 calories. However, since imitation vanilla extract can contain other additives and ingredients, the calories will differ from brand to brand. Check the box for nutrition information. Some packages also have a number you can call for more information about caloric value.

So, whether you’re making cake, frosting, ice cream or custard, there’s a vanilla extract that will suit your needs. While it can certainly be intimidating to shop the baking aisle for the perfect extract, you can shop a little easier knowing how pure extract, imitation extract and vanilla flavoring perform in your baked goods.

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About The Author


Since 1929, the Wilton Team of bakers has been inspiring the joy of creativity in everyone, everywhere, every day. From big milestone celebrations to simply baking in the kitchen with your loved ones, the Wilton team is here to be your trusted guide, your secret ingredient, ready to help you shine with tips, tricks and solutions that enable you to be your most creative self. No matter where you are on your baking journey, Wilton is here to help you bake your world happy.

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