When reading certain sweet recipes, you will notice that some of them call for vanilla extract. This is a very common ingredient in sweet dishes used for adding a rich, creamy, warm flavor reminiscent of childhood ice cream cones.
Vanilla extract is made from the seed pods of a Mexican climbing orchid. The Aztecs figured out that if they cure and dry these smooth green pods, they become deliciously perfumed, flavorful aromatic fruits.
How Much Vanilla Extract Is Too Much?
Vanilla extract is highly concentrated and a little goes a long way. Accidentally using too much can ruin the entire dish and give it a strangely bitter, aromatic flavor.
Most baking recipes call for a teaspoon to a tablespoonful of vanilla essence or extract per dish. Never exceed this. Start with a teaspoonful if you are unsure.
In recent years, pastry chefs have begun increasing the amount in their recipes, using up to a tablespoon at a time for greater depth of flavor especially when it’s combined with other ingredients like spices or chocolate.
Your grandmother may have shown you to use the lid of the vanilla bottle as a measuring spoon. Please don’t do this! It can result in too much vanilla extract in your recipe because not all lids are the same volume.
Highly concentrated ingredients like vanilla extract are certainly something you should use your measuring spoons for.
Vanilla Extract vs. Essence vs. Paste
You may be confused about the difference between vanilla extract, paste, and essence and how much to use. They are all very concentrated and it is important not to add too much or your recipe will be ruined.
We will explore the differences between them before deciding how much is too much.
1. Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract is a natural flavoring essence made by chopping vanilla pods and then soaking or percolating them in a mixture of alcohol and water.
This extracts the vanilla flavor, hence the name. The extract is considered an unprocessed product and yields a stronger, purer vanilla taste than the essence.
You can make your own vanilla extract by soaking vanilla pods in vodka for a few months in a cool, dark place like a pantry shelf.
However, it will never compare in quality to the purchased variety and will hardly cost less so we recommend just investing in a ready-made bottle.
Vanilla extract’s flavor comes mainly from vanillin. It also contains over two hundred other natural compounds that add subtle nuances to the flavor and aroma.
The FDA is very strict about what can be sold as “vanilla extract”. The product must contain at least 13.35 oz of vanilla beans for every gallon of liquid which must contain at least 35% alcohol and 65% water. Some manufacturers add sugar.
Use it for whipped cream, ice cream, milkshakes, and baking.
2. Vanilla Essence
Vanilla essence is a synthetic flavoring product formulated to taste like vanilla but containing very little or no real vanilla. It often contains artificial flavorings, sweeteners, colorants, and preservatives.
It is usually much cheaper than real vanilla extract and sometimes has a slightly bitter aftertaste. It contains vanillin only and none of the other aromatic compounds found in real vanilla extract.
Use it if you are catering and need to make large quantities of food on a budget. The less flour is used in a recipe, the more you can tell the difference between the cheap synthetic essence and the pure extract.
So, keep the essence for cakes and cookies and use the pure extract in milky desserts and ice cream.
3. Vanilla Paste
Vanilla paste is also a natural vanilla product that is thicker and stickier than an extract because it contains ground vanilla pods and seeds in a thickening medium (usually xanthan gum).
This is a strongly flavored, highly concentrated ingredient to be used when you really want vanilla to be the star of the recipe. It’s best if you want the gourmet touch of specks of vanilla seeds through the dish.
Use it for cakes, desserts, and cocktails. Check the jar’s label for substitution quantities because they vary depending on the product’s concentration.
The Bottom Line
For most recipes serving up to eight people, a tablespoonful of vanilla extract is the maximum you should use.
Anything more than this is too much and will spoil the flavor of your dish. It is also wasteful as this is an expensive ingredient!