homemade vs. store-bought extracts taste test

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Today I’m doing a taste test of homemade vs. store-bought extracts! It’s easy to make homemade extracts…but how do they really compare to store-bought?

Read on to find out!

various homemade extracts
[See how I made my extracts in last week’s post.]

my method for comparing homemade vs. store-bought extracts

multicolor cookies

I’m taste testing homemade vs. store-bought extracts in two scenarios: cooked and uncooked. I’m using a basic buttercream frosting and sugar cookies. Both recipes contain half shortening and half butter. I thought that would be a good choice since I want to be sure I can taste the flavor through the rest of cookie, but I also want to be realistic and include some butter since most recipes have more than just one flavor going on.

vanilla

vanilla flavorings

Here I have brand name vanilla extract, generic artificial vanilla flavor, and homemade vanilla extract made with bourbon.

store-bought vanilla extract

The store-bought extract has that strong, typical vanilla smell with just a slight earthiness.

In the frosting, it extract reminds me of vanilla cake from a bakery. Just a very classic vanilla flavor.

In the cookies, I almost couldn’t detect the store-bought extract. Maybe I’m just really used to it?

artificial vanilla flavor

The artificial smells very similar to the store-bought extract, minus the earthy notes. It also smells slightly stronger.

My first thought when I taste the artificial vanilla is store brand ice cream. It’s definitely different from the real vanilla, and of course the flavor is simpler, but I wouldn’t say that one is miles better or worse than the other; they’re just different.

The artificial vanilla was definitely there and seemed to emphasize the sweetness of the cookie.

homemade vanilla extract

Predictably, the bourbon has a big presence in the aroma of the homemade extract. My homemade extract is just a little lighter on that classic vanilla scent than the other two are, but it’s got a chocolaty kind of thing going on too, which is nice. It smells really sweet.

The frosting with homemade vanilla tastes definitively “fancy” to me, like something a sauce drizzled over a dessert at a nice restaurant. This is at least partially thanks to the bourbon. The homemade bourbon vanilla also comes through very clearly in the cookies and tastes delicious.

vanilla verdict

The artificial vanilla seems a little stronger than the other two when it strictly comes to the “vanilla” note of the taste, but it’s a very simple flavor.

For overall flavor, the homemade vanilla extract comes through most clearly. Despite the time and effort I put into making my extract, this was quite a surprise! I figured the bourbon would add a nice flavor to my extract, but I didn’t think that it would be as strong as store-bought vanillas.

The results were surprising enough that I even brought in a tasting buddy to get a second opinion. He came to the same conclusion: for whatever reason, the brand name extract just wasn’t coming through and the cookies made with the homemade extract had the strongest vanilla flavor between the three.

is homemade vanilla worth the cost?

scraping vanilla beans for making extracts

I’ve seen a couple articles contending that making homemade vanilla extract is actually more expensive than store-bought extract. While I’m sure it depends on when and where you’re buying your beans and liquor, I would generally disagree.

The lowest price I could easily find for real vanilla extract was on Costco’s website, where a quart of vanilla extract would total $60 before tax right now. But you could easily make a quart of vanilla extract in the U.S. for under $75…and then keep and reuse the beans multiple times, which would quickly push the homemade extract below the Costco price.

And since the overall price of vanilla beans is rising at a much faster rate than inflation, investing in some beans right now that could last you several years might be a money-saving proposition.

Whichever you choose, just know that almost anything is cheaper little bottles of brand-name extract. Vanilla extract does not go bad, so you might as well get a big bottle for a good deal.

my super-budget gourmet vanilla scheme

If you’re interested in achieving a budget version of the homemade bourbon extract, I have a hot tip. I bet you could achieve a great flavor using a combination of artificial vanilla and bourbon together. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as home-brewed, but it would probably taste taste impressive considering the cost. If you try this hack, leave a comment below to let us know how it went!

Another budget vanilla tip: I’ve read in other blogs that Baker’s brand artificial vanilla flavoring has two compounds (vanillin and ethyl vanillin), while most brands of artificial vanilla contain only one. I wasn’t able to find Baker’s artificial vanilla at the store, but apparently it has a more realistic taste than most other artificial vanilla flavorings. And it is seriously cheap, too!

chocolate

chocolate extracts

I’m tasting three kinds of chocolate extract: brand name chocolate extract, my homemade extract using vodka, and another homemade version using vanilla extract.

store-bought chocolate extract

The ingredient label on the store-bought version just says “cocoa extract,” so I’m not sure if they used raw or roasted beans.

In the biggest twist of the day, this chocolate extract smells a lot like soy sauce. I can detect the chocolate part, but it’s got a distinct umami smell. Maybe it’s due to the fact that it’s made from a type of bean?

soy sauce

In any case, the store-bought chocolate extract added only the faintest cocoa flavor to both the cookies and frosting. It was fairly disappointing.

homemade chocolate extract

I used raw cacao beans and vodka for my chocolate extract. It has the same umami scent that I was getting from the store-bought version. It tasted similar to the store-bought version, but offered a bigger hit of flavor.

homemade chocolate extract with bourbon vanilla

The vanilla extract really plays off the cacao beans to create a delicious chocolate smell. While the vodka/cacao extract offered the flavor of cocoa, the cacao & bourbon/vanilla extract imparted the true taste of chocolate to both the icing and cookies.

chocolate extract verdict

The homemade version using vanilla extract blew away the competition.

The taste reminds me of a high-quality chocolate milkshake. Yum! To lower the steeping time, you could just put the vanilla beans directly into the bottle with the cacao nibs and bourbon and it would be ready in a couple months. Be sure to shake regularly and strain when ready.

lavender

lavender extracts for homemade vs. store bought extracts taste test

The store-bought extract smells like lavender perfume, while the homemade version smells like lavender tea. This is because the store-bought version only uses lavender oil and not the flavor compounds from the rest of the flowers.

store-bought lavender extract

I’ve had floral hard candies before, and the Angel Bake tastes like that–really straightforward and in-your-face. The frosting is especially over-the-top. If Fruity Pebbles were lavender flavored, they’d taste like this.

homemade lavender extract

The homemade version tastes pretty, natural, and earthy in both the icing and cookies.

lavender extract verdict

I have a strong preference for the homemade version. This is probably because, like most Americans, I didn’t grow up eating floral-flavored desserts and candies; I tend to associate pure lavender oil and rose oil with perfume. But the main takeaway is that these two extracts very different, so it’s a matter of personal preference and what you’re used to.

lemon and orange

lemon extracts

I have really high hopes for the homemade lemon and orange extracts.

store-bought lemon and orange extracts

The smell and taste of the store-bought citrus extracts was straightforward and pretty strong because, like the lavender extract, they’re made from only the oils of the fruit.

homemade lemon and orange extracts

The homemade versions smell more natural, like whole fruit.

citrus extracts verdict

Unfortunately, both the homemade lemon and orange extracts are practically undetectable in both the icing and the cookies. I was surprised! The citrus zest itself tastes so strong, and created quite a smell in my kitchen as I was making the extracts.

I tried doubling the amount of extract in the icing to see if that would help, but it just made the icing taste more like vodka. These extracts would work really well as a liqueur in mixed drinks (the orange extract tastes like a dry version of curaçao), but using them in small amounts isn’t practical.

reflection upon my citrus extracts

If I tried the homemade lemon and orange extracts again, I’d pack as much zest as I could possibly fit into the containers before adding the vodka. I really want to make them work since I like the more nuanced smell and flavor of the homemade extracts on their own, but they’re just too weak. For the time being, I’ll be sticking with store-bought. Thankfully, lemon and orange extracts are some of the cheapest and easiest extracts to find.

budget lemon and orange flavor

If you’re interested in saving money on orange and lemon extracts, you might consider purchasing pure lemon or orange oil to use in place of extract. While the oils are more expensive upfront, it only takes about 1/8 teaspoon of lemon oil to take the place of 1 whole teaspoon of lemon extract.

It is important to note that lemon and orange oils have a shorter shelf-life than extracts. If you don’t use it often, the best bet is probably a generic extract. Since all store-bought extracts are made from just oil and alcohol, you’re unlikely to see a quality difference between brand names and store brands.

homemade vs. store-bought extracts: the takeaways

I learned that homemade vanilla extract truly does stack up to store-bought, but that artificial vanilla can be a good choice in some situations. Chocolate and lavender extracts are both inexpensive and delicious. For citrus extracts, I recommend using an inexpensive store-bought version.

These are all the extracts I have for now. Hopefully this homemade vs. store-bought extracts taste test provided you with a little insight as to which extracts are worth making at home.

a note on almond extract

adding extract

Before I go, I want to give an honorable mention to almond extract. Almond extract is one of my favorites. It’s the second most popular flavoring for baking in the U.S., so it would be nice if I could include it. But almond extract is made from the oil of bitter almonds, which have far more of that traditional almond flavor than typical sweet almonds.

Bitter almonds are poisonous when raw and unrefined–so much so that the unrefined bitter almonds are prohibited from being sold to consumers in the U.S. So, for almond extract, I recommend just sticking with store-bought.

What’s your favorite extract to use in the kitchen? Let me know in the comments below!

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