13 August 2013

How to make your own or substitute vanilla extract in baking.

Much like baking powder and speciality baking sugar Vanilla and Almond Extracts are another key baking ingredient that can be difficult to source as an expatriate.   Vanilla Extract is a key ingredient in most cakes and other baking, it is very good at imparting a subtle taste and helps add that certain something to your cakes.  I usually swap it with Almond Extract in my December baking as I find the almond imparts a more ‘Christmassy’ taste.   

The extracts can be a challenge to find abroad – I have not yet come across them in the local supermarkets here in Astana.  In many countries it is possible to buy a Vanilla (Almond) Essence but these are artificial substitutes and do not give the same depth of flavour as the original.  It is like using lemon juice from a bottle instead of squeezing a lemon.  Because I bake so much I must admit to cheating and buying large bottles of extract when I am in the UK and bringing it back with me.  It is one of the few items I do this with.  While I love the challenge of finding ingredients locally I firmly believe that every expat should be allowed a list of items that are absolutely ‘can’t live without’ that they can bring in without feeling guilty.

Extracts are ridiculously simple to make at home – you take vanilla pods (5-7) and split them.  Place them in a clean, sterilised bottle and cover with about 225 millilitres of vodka and just leave it. It will start to be usable within about 3 months and the longer you leave it the more the flavour will develop. When you want to use it strain through a muslin cloth before adding to the mix.  Lemon and almond extracts follow the same principals and are much cheaper to make from scratch because of the price of the raw ingredients.  I like to keep some infusing in the cupboard incase I run out of my shop bought product. If you have a good supply of small bottles you could present some home made essence to friends - the scarcity of this product in many places would make it a much sought after gift.

Split Vanilla pods, place in a bottle (or a tupperware if bottles are
 not available) and leave to infuse in a dark place.

3 months later the extract is ready to use, just
strain through a muslin before adding to the mix.
Unfortunately making your own is not a viable solution if you find you have run out of extract mid way through baking your cake.  Luckily substitutes are available but most will change the taste of the cake.  If you really do not want to change the recipe the alternative with the least impact on flavour is maple syrup.  If you don't mind a change in taste you can have fun experimenting with flavours.  All alternatives are substituted on a 1:1 ratio.

Liqueurs are a good alternative – just about anything will work and you can tailor your liqueur to the flavour of your cake; rum or bourbon is good in a plain cake.  Kaluha would work well with a coffee cake, fruit schnapps would work well in muffins made with the same flavoured fruits.  When we were on holiday in Tenerife years ago I bought a banana liqueur which was fantastic in baking.  Despite the name Madeira cake does not contain any Madeira (the cake is actually a lemon cake and was so named because pieces of the cake would be served with and often dunked in a glass of the liqueur).  Nevertheless Madeira is a wonderful substitute for vanilla extract and works particularly well in Victoria sponge. 

The alcohol disappears in the baking process but if you are concerned and baking for children or those with particular religious sensibilities a strong steeped tea is another good substitute.  I find this works particularly well in chocolate cakes - green tea or Earl Grey giving a beautifully subtle yet distinctive flavour.

Click the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat cooking.

Ersatz Expat


  1. This vanilla recipe looks awesome. BTW, I may be relocating to Astana (from Dallas, Texas, USA). I travel to Mexico regularly, and they have *great* vanilla. If I do relocate to Astana, do you want me to bring you some?

    Let me know. My email address is erik.sjolseth at gmail.com.


    1. Dear Erik

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. Mexican vanilla is really beautiful! Thankfully we are well served for Vanilla here, it is relatively easy to find but thank you for being so thoughtful!

      Best regards


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