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Baking a Cake Without Vanilla Extract: 6 Best Substitutes

If you’ve ever wondered how you can manage baking a cake without vanilla extract, you’ve landed in the right place.

We’re going to explore what you can use instead of vanilla extract when you’re baking a cake. Are those replacements easier to find than vanilla extract or not? Are they going to bring the same depth of flavor? That remains to be seen.

If you’re interested in another topic concerning desserts, you can read my article on how to make box brownies without eggs.

Now, let’s see about baking a cake without vanilla extract and whether you can skip adding this ingredient entirely. Let me just say from the beginning that I would recommend not to.

Substitutes for Baking a Cake without Vanilla Extract

1. Vanilla essence: Watkins Clear Vanilla Flavor

This is the closest substitute for baking a cake without vanilla extract while preserving the same flavor profile. It’s made from synthetic vanilla so it’s going to have a weaker flavor but the taste is the same. Instead of 1 teaspoon extract use 2 teaspoons essence.

2. Pure maple syrup: Maple Grove Farms Pure Maple Syrup

We can use it in a 1:1 substitution. However, vanilla extract and maple syrup don’t taste alike. If you’re looking for a vanilla taste, maple syrup won’t work. Plus, keep in mind that it’s very sweet so you might need to adjust the quantities of sugar added.

3. Almond extract: McCormick Pure Almond Extract

It will bring a nutty taste to desserts. It’s a lot more powerful than vanilla extract so use just half. In terms of taste, obviously, it has nothing in common with the vanilla taste.

4. Instant espresso powder: King Arthur, Espresso Powder

This is especially delicious in chocolatey desserts. It will definitely make chocolate taste more chocolatey so you don’t even need to use vanilla extract. It’s one of my favorite ingredients.

Baking a cake without vanilla extract: Does a cake taste good without it?

It will taste good but it will not be the same. You will definitely be able to tell that something really important is missing.

I don’t know how to describe exactly what this ingredient does to desserts, except saying that it just makes them taste so wonderful, so much better. It brings another dimension to the overall flavors that you’re trying to achieve, even if only small quantities are used. It highlights the taste of the other ingredients used, whether it’s fruits, nuts or chocolate.

On the other hand, vanilla extract doesn’t influence the structure and texture in any way so you’re safe in this area.

Always make sure to buy pure vanilla extract. A little bottle will last a long time.

Even if we’re here talking about baking a cake without vanilla extract I must warn you that there’s really no perfect substitute for the real thing.

However, it must be said that there are some people who find that the extract overpowers the rest of the ingredients. For those few people, the answer to baking a cake without vanilla extract is to simply to skip adding it altogether.

Vanilla Bean Paste and Vanilla Extract

vanilla extract substitute

Vanilla has a floral, sweet flavor that pairs well with a lot of ingredients: chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices. It’s no wonder that so many recipes include it on the list of ingredients.

I always make sure to have plenty in the house because I add it to my pancakes batter. That’s the most requested dessert in my house during the weekends.

Vanilla bean paste and vanilla extract can actually be used interchangeably. If you’re making a vanilla frosting, the little flecks from the paste will look lovely, they’ll be in the spotlight for sure.

However, I believe that people who search for baking a cake without vanilla extract don’t exactly have a jar of vanilla bean paste in the pantry.

Well, if by any means you actually do, you’ve already found your replacement. Use the same amount that the recipe calls for. As I’ve said these two can be used interchangeably.

Baking a Cake Without Vanilla Extract: the Best Substitutes

There are indeed substitutes for baking a cake without vanilla extract but, in my opinion, some things just don’t have perfect substitutes.

I absolutely recommend using vanilla extract or bean paste or to just make your own extract. I’ll give you the recipe after talking about these substitutes.

Even so, I do have some nice substitutes that you can experiment with. Besides vanilla essence & sugar, one of my favorites is instant espresso powder.

1. Vanilla Essence

If you don’t have extract go for the much weaker option: essence. It’s made from synthetic vanilla so it’s going to have a much weaker flavor.

I would say that you will have to use twice as much essence to match the flavor that the extract would have brought to the cake.

Instead of 1 teaspoon extract use 2 teaspoons essence.

I know that it’s synthetic but, in terms of vanilla extract substitutes, at least this one has the exact same flavor, even if you’ll have to use more of it.

Obviously, vanilla bean paste is a much better substitute but I’m pretty sure that not a lot of people will have it in their pantry if they don’t have extract.

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2. Vanilla Sugar (How to Make It)

You can make your own vanilla sugar very easily and store it away for when you run out of extract.

It will be a good substitute, just remember to decrease the amount of sugar the recipe calls for with the amount of vanilla sugar that you used.

In order to make the sugar, you need a vanilla bean together with the seeds.

One bean per 2 cups of sugar is plenty. It’s not going to be something really expensive to make.

Place the sugar in a coffee grinder or a blender or a food processor.

Cut the bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife.

Scrape the seeds off the knife without another knife or a spoon. Don’t touch them with your hands because they’re sticky.

Place the seeds on top of the sugar and then blend/whisk/pulse until all the seeds are broken up. The sugar will be made fine, too but it can still be used in most recipes.

Pour your mix into a jar and place the cut bean inside. You can let it sit like that for 2 weeks for a more intense flavor.

3. Pure Maple Syrup

This is one of the first options for a lot of people. It’s recommended to use pure maple syrup. You can use it in the same quantity the recipe states for the extract. 1:1 substitution.

However, these two have very different tastes. Pure maple syrup is a substitute for vanilla extract but don’t expect the same flavor because you won’t get it.

Moreover, if your syrup is too sweet, you’ll have to add less sugar so that you don’t overload on sugar.

The extract brings flavor to the cakes, while the syrup will mostly bring sweetness. As you can see, they’re not a perfect match but it can work.

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4. Almond Extract

I am well aware that having almond extract at home is not something that a lot of people have. That’s why I recommended all those other substitutes above.

However, almond extract can serve as a delicious solution if you’re wondering about baking a cake without vanilla extract.

Just be aware that almond extract has a pretty strong flavor profile. Use just half almond extract when replacing vanilla extract in a recipe.

The nutty flavor pairs well with all kinds of cakes. However, if you’re not into the whole nutty taste, don’t use this substitute.

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5. Dark Rum/Brandy/Bourbon

You can replace vanilla extract with dark rum or brandy or bourbon. You can make a 1:1 substitution or use 2 times more alcohol than extract.

As you’re going to see, alcohol is used when making your own vanilla extract so this substitution makes a bit of sense.

The flavor profile won’t be there, as I’m sure you’re all aware.

Obviously, for those who don’t use alcohol in anything, this won’t work. Just as it won’t work for those who usually don’t keep these types of alcohol in the house.

6. Instant Espresso Powder

This substitute really works if you’re making chocolate treats. It will definitely make chocolate taste more chocolatey so you actually won’t miss the lack of vanilla extract at all.

After all, in chocolate cakes vanilla extract is used to boost the flavor of the chocolate. That’s exactly what the instant espresso powder also does. They’re perfect substitutes in instances like these.

Instant espresso powder can also be added to spice cakes and gingerbread. It can also tamper the sweetness of caramel. It’s an ingredient with many uses and more amateur bakers should be aware of just how much a pinch can contribute to a recipe.

I would recommend adding half of espresso powder.

If the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, you can use 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder. If you have both, definitely use both.

Where to Buy?

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How to Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

We talked about baking a cake without vanilla extract but what if you can make your own and have no more need for those substitutes that I’ve mentioned above?

If you want to make sure that you never run out of vanilla extract, maybe you’d prefer making your own. That way, you’ll plan in advance for when a new batch must be started.

You’ll be surprised to find out that it’s not complicated at all but it will require quite a bit of patience. You’re not going to make it in a day. More like at least a couple of months or half a year up to a year if you really have the patience.

It will also require a bit of an initial investment. I’m sorry to say but I don’t think it’s going to be cheaper making your own extract as opposed to buying it.

But that investment can be worth it because, if you take the time, you’ll be able to make a really good vanilla extract.

Moreover, you’ll know for sure that no artificial or synthetic ingredients have been used. That’s a big plus.

The flavor will blow you away. Some store-bought options just have a diluted aroma that spoils all the fun of baking.

The good news is that you’ll need just 2 ingredients:

  • vanilla beans
  • vodka

In terms of vanilla beans, you can buy them from a store or online. I recommend the Madagascar Vanilla Beans. Tahitian Vanilla Beans are a second option. As a third option, you can pick Indonesian Vanilla Beans. Last but not least, we have Mexican Vanilla Beans for an almost smoky flavor.

When it comes to vodka, I leave that choice to you.

You can also use other types of alcohol, like bourbon, rum or brandy. It just needs to be 80 proof alcohol (40% ABV). Vodka is just the most common choice, just don’t buy any flavored stuff.

You don’t need to buy expensive alcohol, just get the cheap stuff because the vanilla beans are the star of the show here. The alcohol is just a prop up that will extract the flavor from the beans.

If you’re making it for gluten-free baking, make sure to buy certified gluten-free alcohol.


You will need 8 vanilla beans per 16 ounces of alcohol. Or 4 beans for 8 ounces of alcohol. As you can see, you can change the quantity easily, depending on how many beans you’ve bought.

Slit the beans in two down the middle, lengthwise.

Place the slit beans in a bottle or jar with a tight seal. If they don’t fit, cut the beans in smaller pieces.

Pour alcohol until all the beans are completely submerged.

Shake the mix a few times.

Store the jar/bottle in a dark place, out of sunlight.

You will have to shape the mix once a week.

You need to give it at least 2 months for the vanilla extract to form.

However, you can also wait for 6 months or even a year until you open the jar and start using it for your desserts. The flavor will be more intense the longer the jar goes unopened. That’s why I said it requires patience.

You can use the extract with the seeds that are floating in the jar or you can use a cheesecloth to remove everything and get a clear liquid. I prefer seeing the seeds in my desserts.

And that’s about it. We saw which substitutes work for baking a cake without vanilla extract but I also presented you with the possibility of making your own extract in whatever quantity you want from just 2 ingredients.