How to Get the Most from That Pricey Bottle of Vanilla Extract

Vanilla has gotten very expensive, but there are ways to savor the flavor and save your budget.

vanilla extract, homemade as a gift in a small bottle and beans Photo: Shutterstock / Maren Winter

Let’s face it—vanilla has gotten pricey. But if you’re a baker, having a bottle in your pantry is essential, despite its luxurious price! Vanilla extract plays a supporting role in so many recipes, even simple ones like these chocolate chip cookies! But just because we love to use this ingredient in everything doesn’t mean we can’t be more careful with how we use it. So let’s dive right in.

What Makes It so Pricey?

Avid bakers have likely noticed that over the past several years, the cost of vanilla has slowly creeped up. In fact, CBS News reports that the price of vanilla has increased from $11 per pound in 2011 to nearly $200 per pound by the end of 2016.

The reason for this increase is two fold. First, bakers have become more concerned with using natural vanilla, rather than synthetic, creating more demand. At the same time, supply has become more scarce. Madagascar, home of 79 percent of the world’s vanilla, lost one third of its vanilla crop in a cyclone in 2017 causing a temporary shortage. Many of the Madagascar farms have begun rebuilding, so there should be relief, but bear in mind it can take several years for the companies and plants to reestablish themselves.

Even without these challenges, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops to grow. CBS reporters explain that plants must be pollinated and then harvested by hand. Not to mention that it can take up to three years for a plant to produce a single vanilla bean!

Tips for How to Save Money on Vanilla Extract

So if you’re not looking forward to dropping the big bucks on a fresh bottle of extract every few months, how do you maintain the quality of your bakes?

1. Determine if you need the real thing

First, decide if your baking really needs the pure vanilla. With recipes for vanilla wafer cookies, creamy vanilla pudding, or vanilla french toast, you’ll want to use the real thing. Anything where vanilla is a key ingredient (even if “vanilla” isn’t in the title) is worth the splurge. Butter cookies, sugar cookies, pound cake and countless others depend on vanilla for their flavor.

On the other hand, there are recipes where the vanilla plays a strictly supporting role. Brownies, chocolate mint sandwich cookies and shortbread lemon bars all call for vanilla, but it’s not the dominant flavor. In these cases, a synthetic vanilla would be a viable substitution.

2. Buy in bulk

Another budget-savvy move is buying the largest bottle of vanilla you can afford. The initial sticker shock may be painful, but a 16-ounce bottle of vanilla can cost $4.30 an ounce while a four-ounce bottle could mean you’re paying $4.90 an ounce and a two-ounce bottle may be $5.90 an ounce!

3. Go for double-strength

Double-strength vanilla is another cost-cutting option. You can use half the amount called for in the recipe, and while double-strength is more costly than single-strength, it’s not twice as much. Because properly stored vanilla has a virtually endless shelf life, a large bottle is a safe investment for even the occasional baker.

4. Make your own

Another option that might appeal to the DIY-er is making your own vanilla. The price of the beans, like their extract, has gone up in the last few years. But making your own will still save you some money. Plus, homemade vanilla is a gift other bakers will really appreciate!

Can't get enough vanilla? Try these recipes.
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Cathryn Jakicic
Cathy Jakicic has written about everything from business and bacteria to beads and baking in her career —but she greatly prefers the last two. She is a baker and a crafter and loves to try new recipes for both.