By Rebekah Denn

If you've bought a new bottle of vanilla extract lately, you've already felt the sticker shock. Prices for the flavoring, one of the most essential ingredients in a baker's pantry, have exploded over the past few years. It's gotten to the point that professional chefs are altering their recipes, artisan ice cream makers are favoring other flavors over expensive scoops of vanilla,and home cooks are wondering about alternates.

Photo by Meredith

There are a few reasons why the price for vanilla extract is several times higher than it was a few years ago, including crop failures, changing farming practices, and increased demand. The already-bad situation hit a crisis when a 2017 cyclone ruined part of the crop in Madagascar, a major producer of vanilla beans. Vanilla beans aren't like string beans, where a terrible harvest one year can be followed by a great one the next. The vines take years to mature, the beans are then pollinated by hand, and it takes more than a year for each crop to reach the retail market. As the Nielsen-Massey company put it in a recent report, vanilla is "among the most labor, capital and time-intensive agricultural processes on Earth."
Farmers and buyers are working to produce more and better vanilla beans as fast as they can. Meanwhile, you do have some good options for baking your favorite cookies and cakes without breaking the bank.

Option 1: DIY

Vanilla extract is ridiculously easy to make at home. All it takes is dried vanilla beans and alcohol. You'll invest some money in purchasing the leathery dried beans with their hauntingly floral scent, but you'll spend less if you buy them from your market's bulk spice bins instead of purchasing them in pre-packaged jars. This popular recipe uses vodka and vanilla beans.

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Option 2: Fake It

In plenty of taste tests for cookies and cakes, people can't tell the difference between pure and imitation vanilla extract. (Some even prefer the cheaper artificial stuff.) There is a real taste difference between the two, but for many people the nuances don't come through in baked goods. You're probably better off using the real thing for desserts where vanilla is the dominant flavor, such as vanilla ice cream or pudding, but imitation extract should work fine for your next batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies or brownies.

Option 3: Substitute

Maple syrup is a popular 1:1 substitute for vanilla extract. (It's sweet, so you may want to slightly reduce the sugar in your recipe to compensate.) Some recipes also work well if you simply omit the extract and use vanilla sugar in place of regular white sugar. Vanilla sugar is easy to make at home with recipes like this.

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