Vanilla extract is to baking what salt is to cooking: a gold-standard ingredient that could make or break an entire meal. With it, the food is divine, the flavors are rich, the skies are blue and there's a point in life. Without it, the food is bland and the mood is gloomy. Is that really the case though? In my opinion, sumac is a great salt substitute, but that's another post. Here we shall discuss all the liquors you can use instead of vanilla extract.
What is Vanilla Extract?
Vanilla is a spice produced by an orchid. Vanilla extract is an alcohol-based liquid, made to add flavor and scent to our baked goods. The spirit used in it is neutral and flavorless, giving way to the vanilla. Each flower of the vanilla orchid produces one bean that takes 9 months to mature. Then it is dried, cured, and fermented. From cultivation to your shelf, the entire process takes a year. What makes it such a costly spice is how labor-intensive it is: the pollination is done by hand in the same process since the 1800s. This video demonstrates:
Now imagine doing that to an entire orchard. Vanilla extract enhances and compliments woody, spicey, creamy and rich flavors in our desserts, but many other liquors can do that and much more.
Whiskey, Rum, and Brandy
Spicy spirits that have been aged in wooden barrels can enhance rich and woody flavors. Dark, spiced rums highlight caramel flavors when combined with brown sugar. They also work well with nutty desserts like pecan pies.
Spiced and aged liquors also go well in desserts that contain highly acidic fruits like citrus, peach, and pineapple. When making tart-tatin or upside-down cakes, ditch the vanilla extract for rum. The quantities remain the same.
Ever tried liquor-flavored chocolates? Then you know that it's a match made in heaven. Try swapping vanilla extract with rum when making a dark chocolate torte.
Any type of brandy including Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados enhance spiciness and deep aromas. They fit perfectly with apples, dried fruits, and milk chocolate.
Dessert Wine and Fortified Wine
These will work well in slow-cooked, fruit-based desserts to add richness and dimension. Here's how: gently heat the wine to reduce it into a thicker liquid, and let the alcohol fumes evaporate a little. The sauce you're left with should be added at the end of baking, or as a sauce over fresh fruit toppings. Here's a collection of wine recipes:
This video demonstrates the recipes, and once you picked your favorite, click the "show more" below the vid to access the links to each recipe.
Citrusy and bittersweet drinks, which go under the umbrella term "amaro" or digestif, go well with creamy desserts like tiramisu and panna cotta, and they can also go over a ball of ice cream like you would in an Affogato. They will also pair well with milk chocolate, almond, and hazelnut, or the following fruits: strawberries, grapes, cherries, and figs.
If this sounds to you like spending time in a chemistry lab, here's a mistake-proof, 5-minute hack that will help you decide which liquors you like: add 1 tsp of your selected liquor to a cup of whipped cream. Season it with a few pinches of sugar and a sprinkle of salt. This goes over a piece of chocolate cake or ice cream.
Another mistake-proof pairing is almond or coffee liquors with any chocolate dessert.
There's room for unique liquors as well: the rule of thumb is to pair similar tastes. If it's a Limoncello, tune into that lemony citrusy hues and pair it in a citrusy dessert of any kind. A cherry liquor will go into cherry pie and so on. If you're using a spicy liquor it can complement the pumpkin spice in your pies. Bottoms up!