There are a lot of ingredients in baking that some people would consider to be unnecessary. That is, people would often consider these types of ingredients unnecessary when they do not realize the importance that they have in baking.
When it comes to baking specifically, each ingredient that you add to the mix has a purpose in the recipe, and that purpose is often more than just for the sake of taste.
Take brown sugar as an example. For the most part, brown sugar seems to be interchangeable with your standard white sugar.
However, when you put everything into the context of baking, changing a recipe’s contents with brown sugar can create quite the texture difference. This is just one of the many, many examples of where ingredients are more than just flavoring in baking.
More often than not, ingredients that are used in baking are also meant to perform a chemical reaction along with the other ingredients.
Consider egg whites as another example. Egg whites are sometimes used in baking as a more specific requirement than just simply a whole egg because egg whites have specific properties to them that the yolk of the egg does not.
Egg whites, as seen in meringue, are capable of increasing their volume several times over and are sometimes called for in specific recipes that rely on volume.
With this in mind, when a recipe calls for vanilla extract, you may believe that the extract is there solely for the flavor of the cookie, right?
Vanilla extract is one of those rare ingredients in baking where it may seem as if it is there to provide a function other than adding flavor to a dish, but the truth is that vanilla extract is simply a way for you to add vanilla flavoring without needing to use beans or other forms of vanilla.
This then begs the question of whether or not you really need vanilla extract when you are baking cookies. Considering the fact that vanilla extract is solely to add vanilla flavoring, you can absolutely make your cookies without vanilla extract.
The only noticeable difference in your cookies that you will find when doing this will be the fact that your cookies will be lacking a particular undertone (and in some cases, overtone) of vanilla flavoring. You can generally cook your cookies the way you normally would, simply overlooking any addition of vanilla extract in the recipe you follow.
This means that it is perfectly safe for your cookies to have absolutely no vanilla extract in them. Of course, there are some situations where you may want the flavor of vanilla in your cookies, but you may not want to pay the price of vanilla extract to get the job done.
Thankfully, there are a few different substitutions that you can use to replace vanilla extract that will not be nearly as hard on your wallet to invest in.
Less Expensive Substitutions for Vanilla Extract
One of the biggest problems with vanilla extract is the fact that it costs a lot of money for only a small amount. While most people only use a few drops of vanilla extract at a time, the initial price of it can wear down on you, especially if all you want to do is make cookies.
These are a few alternatives that you can use and will likely find to be a bit easier on the wallet than your standard extract is.
A very quick and easy solution to this problem is simply using vanilla bean instead. You can also use vanilla paste and powder but these may be harder to find than others.
Vanilla bean may not be as common of an ingredient in your kitchen, but you can get a fair amount of vanilla out of one bean for a fraction of the price. Typically scraping the seeds out of half of a bean can substitute about one teaspoon of extract.
If you want to move toward items that may be easier for you to find, a good variant that you can find would be vanilla milk.
This can be a bit troublesome in cookies, as it involves adding a lot more liquid to the recipe to get those same flavors, but at the same time, if you are only looking for undertones of a flavor, then adding a small amount of milk can generally get the job done.
One thing to keep in mind is that it might take some trial and error with vanilla milk to find the right blend of vanilla flavoring and balancing the liquid content of your cookies.
For a much easier substitute than vanilla milk, surprisingly, almond extract can get the job done. It tends to be a bit easier to find in stores and it can be easier on the wallet than vanilla extract.
Almond extract carries the same overwhelmingly sweet flavor as vanilla extract. In fact, it is considered to be about twice as strong in that department, so if you are substituting almond extract in a recipe, you should use about half of what is called for in the vanilla extract.
Naturally, almond extract is going to have nuttier undertones to it, so you should factor this in with any other flavor profiling you are doing. With that being said, you can usually get away with using any extract in place of vanilla, as long as you are okay with the flavor being used.
This paves the way for peppermint extracts, lemon, orange, and all sorts of other flavors that you can include in your cookies. Vanilla extract is purely for the flavor of the cookie and has no bearing on the chemical composition of it, so you can choose whatever extract you want to be your replacement.
Finally, you can also use maple syrup to get the job done. In cookies, one thing you will need to be aware of is that syrup classifies as a liquid as well as has a high sugar content.
Depending on the recipe you are going for, you are going to need to adjust your recipe accordingly, decreasing the overall liquid content slightly and decreasing the amount of additional sugar you would use in the recipe.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.