The extract in vanilla extract’s name is there because the flavor is extracted from the vanilla bean using alcohol. Vanilla extract is an essential for desserts and should be one of the staples in your spice cabinet if you bake regularly. If you run out unexpectedly or can’t find the pure version (as opposed to the imitation version) there are quite a few vanilla extract substitutes for you to use.
Your best bet: Make your own
All you need to make vanilla extract are some vanilla beans and a form of alcohol. Note that while this is an effective substitute for the pre-made stuff, it is not a quick one as it will take time for the vanilla flavor to infuse into the alcohol. The good news is that the results are worth the wait.
You can use any type of vanilla beans to make your vanilla extract as long as you realize that the quality of the beans has a direct impact on the quality of the final product. Each type of bean will result in a different type of extract. Fruitier beans make a fruitier extract while the spicy beans give a spicier version.
The type of alcohol you use is important as well. If you want only the flavor of the bean, opt for something with a neutral flavor like vodka. Other popular alcohols used to make extract include bourbon, rum and brandy but you can use tequila as well.
Make your vanilla extract by splitting three beans lengthwise and adding them to about 1 cup of your preferred alcohol. You should let it sit for at least a month but the longer you let it sit before using it, the stronger and more complex the flavor will become.
A decent second choice: Vanilla sugar
Vanilla beans are pungent enough that you can infuse the flavor into sugar as well into liquids. Vanilla sugar uses sugar as the medium rather than alcohol. Since almost all recipes that call for vanilla are sweet, swapping out some or all of your sweetener for vanilla-flavored sugar should pose no problem at all.
You may be able to purchase vanilla sugar at a specialty bakery supply store or you can make your own. Make it by splitting one vanilla bean lengthwise and scraping the seeds into 2 cups of sugar. Stir the sugar to mix the seeds in and store in an airtight container for about 2 weeks. Use the sugar in recipes that call for vanilla extract.
In a pinch: Maple syrup
If you have no vanilla beans at all, maple syrup is one alternative that will not require you to wait. Maple syrup is the reduced sap of the maple tree and has a deep caramel flavor with nutty background notes. There are different grades of maple syrup with the darker type having a deeper caramel flavor. Vanillin is the primary flavor component in vanilla beans and is also present in maple syrup.
Use the same amount of maple syrup that your recipe requires for vanilla extract. Note that maple syrup is sweet, which means that you may need to adjust the amount of sweetener in your recipe to compensate.
Vanilla syrup is another way that you can extract the flavor of vanilla beans. You can make vanilla syrup by adding the seeds from one vanilla bean to a simple syrup (2 cups sugar, one cup water) and simmering it for about 20 minutes. This is a faster option than other vanilla extract substitutes.
Triple Sec is a liqueur flavored with bitter oranges. Its flavor will work in most of the applications that require vanilla extract.