Both vanilla extract and vanilla essence are flavouring ingredients that are commonly used in baking. When used in small amounts they support, enhance, balance and give depth to baked goods and desserts in much the same way salt does in savoury dishes. They can also be used in larger amounts when vanilla is the star ingredient.
The main differences between vanilla extract and vanilla essence are their ingredients and the way in which they are produced.
Pure vanilla extract is made naturally by soaking vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution. The alcohol absorbs the flavour from the vanilla beans over a period of time. Sugar may also be added to achieve a dark, clear liquid. Generally vanilla extract is less processed than vanilla essence and has a bolder, more complex vanilla flavour.
Often labelled as Imitation Vanilla, vanilla essence is a chemically created substance aimed to replicate the flavour of vanilla extract. Although some bakers find it lacks the delicacy, depth and complexity of its natural counterpart, it provides a cheaper alternative to vanilla extract.
At Bakers Box, we use vanilla extract when baking and in our baking kits because it is a natural ingredient and believe it delivers the best results.
If you’re on a budget though, there’s nothing wrong with using imitation vanilla essence for everyday baking such as cakes, cookies and brownies. Some bakers report they can't tell the difference in flavour. Just be aware that vanilla essence can be weaker than natural vanilla extract so you may need to adjust the amount you use.
Although imitation vanilla essence can do the job in baked goods, we highly recommend you invest in good quality vanilla products (vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste and vanilla beans) for desserts and treats made using low or no heat such as custard, ice cream and no bake slices. The difference in taste is much more noticeable in these types of recipes.