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Vanilla Extract or Essence?

Asked by emmy78. Answered on 17th April 2011

Full question

Hi Nigella! Can you please tell me what is the difference between Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Essence. Which is also best for baking? Thank you. Emily

Our answer

There is quite a big difference between vanilla extract and vanilla essence. Vanilla extract is usually a natural product made by soaking vanilla pods in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water. The flavour of the vanilla is taken up by the liquid ingredients and makes the vanilla extract that we use in cooking. Vanilla essence is usually a synthetic (ie chemically produced) vanilla flavouring and is cheaper than the natural extract. However, terms can vary between countries so we suggest that you read the label of the bottles carefully to determine which is a natural product and which is a synthetic one.

Most cooks tend to err towards using natural vanilla extract for baking and custards as it is felt that it has a preferable flavour to the synthetic essence. If you are using the vanilla extract in a sauce, such as a custard or creme anglaise, then add the extract at the end of the cooking time and off the heat. If using it in baking then beat the vanilla extract into the cake batter along with the eggs. You can also make vanilla sugar to use in cooking by taking a couple of vanilla pods and burying them in a jar of sugar (use caster or granulated sugar rather than brown sugar). Leave for a month in a cool, dark place and the sugar should have become perfumed with the vanilla. Each time you use some of the vanilla sugar you can top the jar up with fresh sugar and leave for a couple of days. The vanilla pods will last for a few years this way so it can be quite cost effective.

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