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Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence | Differences & How to Use

Discover the distinctions among Vanilla Extract & Vanilla Bean Paste and Essence in this comprehensive guide. Learn when and how to use them.
A bottle of Vanilla Essence with a red cap is next to a bottle of vanilla extract with a black cap for comparison.

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Hi Bold Bakers!

What is vanilla? What’s the difference between vanilla extract vs vanilla bean paste? Is Imitation vanilla the same as vanilla extract? What is vanilla essence?

Vanilla is in the vast majority of our baking recipes in cookies, cakesbread & doughscheesecakesbrownies and bars, and even frosting or ice cream & frozen desserts! It is a flavor in its own right but also serves as a support or an enhancer to other flavors. We can find vanilla in many forms, from the whole bean, to extract and everything in between. Read on to learn more about various types of vanilla flavoring and their best uses.

Table of Contents

A bottle of Vanilla Essence with a red cap is next to a bottle of Vanilla Extract with a black cap for comparison.

What is Vanilla?

Vanilla is a flavor, fragrance, and ingredient that comes from the fruit of the vanilla orchid, primarily from the species Vanilla planifolia. It is one of the most loved and widely used flavors and scents in the world.

Vanilla has a sweet, warm, and aromatic flavor with subtle floral undertones, and it is highly versatile and widely used in cooking and baking.

The majority of the world’s commercially grown vanilla beans (about 80%) are from Madagascar and for good reason. Madagascar vanilla beans (also known as Bourbon Vanilla Beans) are from the genus planifolia and have a strong, classic, creamy and sweet vanilla aroma and flavor. These beans are perfect as an all-purpose vanilla bean for any recipe.

  • Mexican Vanilla Beans:

Mexican Vanilla Beans are also from the genus planifolia, and in fact, this is where vanilla beans originated and were primarily grown until the 1800s. Mexican vanilla beans are similar in taste to Madagascar Vanilla Beans but with an added spicy, woody fragrance. Some consider Mexican vanilla beans to be the best in the world making a recipe where vanilla is the featured flavor, as in Vanilla Ice Cream or Vanilla Crème Brulee.

  • Tahitian Vanilla Beans:

Tahitian Vanilla Beans are actually from Papua New Guinea. They are from the genus Vanilla Tahitensis and these beans have less vanillin, the chemical compound that produces the classic vanilla flavor and aroma. Less vanillin means that the other flavors and aromas are more pronounced, giving these beans a distinctly fruity taste and aroma that some liken to anise, apricots or cherries. This aspect makes Tahitian vanilla beans the perfect choice for fruit-based desserts like pies or sorbets.

Vanilla beans are on a blue wooden surface. The bean pods are in a long, slender shape, have a dark blackish-brown color and a glossy appearance.

What is Vanilla Extract, Vanilla Bean Paste, or Vanilla Essence?

Pure Vanilla Extract is made by soaking whole vanilla beans in a solution of alcohol (eg. vodka) and water with no other ingredients. Use high-quality vanilla to make your own vanilla extract using my recipe of Homemade Vanilla Extract.  

  • Vanilla Bean Paste

Vanilla Bean Paste is made by grinding whole vanilla beans and blending it with vanilla extract and a thick sugar syrup.

  • Vanilla Essence (Imitation Vanilla Extract)

Vanilla Essence is a synthetic product made by extracting vanillin from sources that are cheaper than vanilla beans. Today, most food-grade imitation vanilla flavoring comes from refined petrochemicals with added food coloring.

What is the difference between Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence and how to use them?

Vanilla bean paste, vanilla extract, and vanilla essence are all flavoring agents, but they differ in several ways:

  • Comparing Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence in Ingredients:

    • Vanilla Paste is made from vanilla pods, sugar, water, and often a natural thickener like corn syrup. It typically contains both the scraped seeds from the pods themselves.
    • Vanilla Extract is made by soaking split vanilla beans in alcohol (or glycerin) to extract the flavor compounds. The alcohol content can vary from 35% to 40%.
    • Vanilla Essence (aka “Imitation vanilla flavoring”) typically contains synthetic vanillin (a compound that mimics vanilla flavor), along with other flavorings, colorings, and water.
  • Comparing Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence in Flavor Intensity:

    • Vanilla Bean Paste generally has a more complex vanilla flavor from the presence of both the seeds and pieces of the vanilla bean pod.
    • Vanilla Extract has a more concentrated pure vanilla flavor compared to bean paste. The intensity can vary based on the quality of the extract and the number of vanilla beans used in the extraction process. It is well-suited for recipes where a robust vanilla flavor is desired.
    • Vanilla essences (aka “imitation vanilla” ) offer a strong and pure vanilla flavor, much like vanilla extract.

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  • Comparing Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence in Texture and Appearance:

    • Vanilla Bean Paste has a thick and slightly viscous consistency. The presence of vanilla bean seeds gives it a speckled appearance, which can be visually appealing in recipes.
    • Vanilla Extract is a liquid with an amber color (or clear color if it is made with glycerin), and it contains no to little visible flecks of vanilla bean.
    • Vanilla Essence’s texture and consistency may vary based on the specific product. It’s usually in dark or amber color and in a thin liquid form.
  • Comparing Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence in Usage:

    • Vanilla Bean Paste is often used when both the intense vanilla flavor and the visual appeal of vanilla bean specks are desired in recipes, such as custards and pudding, vanilla ice cream, cakes, and desserts like fudge.
    • Vanilla Extract is more commonly used in recipes where a milder and pure vanilla flavor is needed, and the visual appearance of the seeds is not crucial.
    • Vanilla essence is often used as a more affordable alternative to pure vanilla extract, primarily in baking.
  • Comparing Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Bean Paste vs Vanilla Essence in Substitution:

    • You can substitute vanilla bean paste for vanilla extract, but you’ll generally need to use less paste than extract due to its higher concentration of flavor.
    • A common guideline is to use about half the amount of vanilla bean paste for the equivalent amount of vanilla extract, but the exact ratio may vary depending on the brand and personal preference.
    • You can substitute an equal amount of vanilla extract for vanilla essence.

Homemade Vanilla Bean Paste is in a glass jar with a golden spoon holding some of it on top. The vanilla bean paste is in a dark blackish-brown color and a syrup consistency with speckles of vanilla seeds.

Other Vanilla Products

  • Ground Vanilla

Ground vanilla is pure, dried and ground vanilla beans without any other additives.

    • It looks like dark brown granules and had a strong, concentrated vanilla flavor.
    • You can use this in place of extract but use half the amount of ground vanilla. It is a less expensive alternative to whole vanilla beans and it will give you the same intense flavor and pretty brown speckles in your finished product.
  • White Vanilla Powder

    White vanilla bean powder is made with a sugar base (usually dextrose, sucrose or maltodextrin) that has been flavored with vanilla extract.

    • It has a strong vanilla flavor and can be used as a 1:1 substitute for vanilla extract.
    • It is much cheaper than vanilla beans or ground vanilla and is good to use when you want vanilla flavor but don’t want to add any extra liquid or color to a recipe like liquid-sensitive meringues, French macarons or fondant or when trying to achieve specific colors when making frosting.

Vanilla is so often considered plain or basic, but we hope this article leaves you with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of this amazing spice, and some inspiration to get baking!

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Jenifer S
Jenifer S
6 months ago

Your vanilla extract recipe isn’t going to produce the best possible result. One ounce of vanilla beans per 8 ounces of 70-100 proof alcohol and 12 months later for light color alcohol or 18 to 24 months later for darker alcohol like bourbon will produce a true extract.

About Us

Meet Gemma

About Us

Meet Gemma

Hi Bold Bakers! I’m Gemma Stafford, a professional chef originally from Ireland, a cookbook author, and the creator of Bigger Bolder Baking. I want to help you bake with confidence anytime, anywhere with my trusted and tested recipes and baking tips. You may have seen one of my 500+ videos on YouTube & TikTok or as a guest judge on Nailed It! on Netflix or the Best Baker in America on Food Network. No matter your skills, my Bold Baking Team & I want to be your #1 go-to baking authority.


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