Many amateur and professional cooks bolster their creations with spices that enhance flavor. Vanilla is one of the most popular spices, but sometimes factors such as price or convenience may prevent an individual from using pure vanilla. In these cases, a number of substitution options exist, from artificial alternatives to similar spices. Closely related sweets like almond extract and maple syrup may complement some recipes. Liquor-based offerings such as rum or brandy provide another substitution option.
Vanilla is a spice made from vanilla orchid plants. The spice has become such a fixture in recipes — particularly sweet recipes — because it produces a sweet but unobtrusive flavor. As such, it blends seamlessly with many types of ingredients.
Perhaps the most often used form of vanilla in cooking is vanilla extract. This liquid is a combination of vanilla beans, water, and ethyl alcohol. The closest vanilla substitute one will find to vanilla extract is the vanilla bean itself. This is the pure form of vanilla and thus will retain the most intense flavor. Any other products with vanilla as a base — like vanilla sugar or vanilla paste — can mimic many of the properties of vanilla extract.
Certain substances may serve as a vanilla substitute provided they work well with the recipe at hand. Such substances possess a unique taste that may not mesh with other substances. In these cases, experimentation is best. Examples include Fiori di Sicilia, lemon juice, and almond extract. Some cooks even use tea.
A few forms of vanilla substitute provide a somewhat similar effect as vanilla, but may prove too sweet for certain palettes. Maple syrup, for example, may work well in recipes that typically feature a high amount of sweetness. Certain liquors like brandy or rum may also function well in a recipe if used in small amounts.
Many companies also market imitation vanilla products. While these products may emulate vanilla flavor, they share only a limited number of ingredients with a real vanilla bean or extract. An artificial vanilla substitute product is typically less expensive and will likely have a less intense aroma. Such products are common in ice cream, cakes, and custards.
Generally, one should use the same amount of a vanilla substitute as one would the traditional vanilla additive. For example, if a recipe suggests 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of vanilla extract, one would usually use 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of the substitute. Exceptions may be needed for stronger or flavor-variant substitutes, where slightly smaller amounts may be advisable.