Does Vanilla Extract Go Bad? – The quick answer is yes, both Imitation Vanilla and Pure Vanilla Extract can and do go bad. That being said, not all shelf-life is the same, depending on the packaging. Read on to find out more!
It’s Sunday afternoon, and you decide to make a scrumptious dessert to satisfy your sweet tooth. You have all the ingredients (flour, milk, eggs, sugar…) at hand to bake it, except for one: vanilla extract. So you open the cupboard, and upon doing a deep search, you find a half-full bottle of who knows how old vanilla extract, and right before you add it to your recipe, you read the label and… Oh no, it’s expired! But wait a second — does vanilla extract go bad, and can you use it after it has expired?
We’re sure we are not the only ones who have asked ourselves that question at some point, and truth be told, there are still bakers out there who don’t know the answer. This is why in this post, we’ll cover vanilla extract’s shelf life!
Types Of Vanilla Extract
The word “vanilla” alone is enough to make any sweet lover’s taste buds tingle, but did you know that there is not just one type of vanilla extract? That’s right! If you think all vanilla extracts are the same because all the bottles look pretty much the same, plot twist, they are not. So without further ado, let’s delve into the two main different types of vanilla extract — imitation and pure.
In a nutshell, imitation vanilla is, well, imitation vanilla. It is a synthetic product that mimics the aroma and flavor of vanilla beans but does not come directly from them. Added ingredients such as lignin, sugar, emulsifiers, and other chemical compounds are used in the manufacturing process to help boost the vanilla taste.
Don’t get us wrong. Imitation vanilla extract can still add that addictive floral and sweet taste to any dessert. It just won’t be as complex or deep as its pure counterpart. Oh, and it’s cheaper.
Pure Vanilla Extract
As its name suggests, pure vanilla extract is the real deal. It mainly contains water, alcohol, and vanilla beans from orchids that grow only in tropical climates. Also, to be considered pure by law, the vanilla extract must have at least 35% alcohol while maintaining a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon.
Yes, it’s more expensive than imitation vanilla extract, but the flavor is unmatched. Plus, right off the bat, we can tell you that pure vanilla extract has a huge advantage over the “fake” stuff in terms of shelf life.
Pro-Tip: Did you know that you can make your own homemade vanilla extract? You just need to slice 3 vanilla beans lengthwise, scrape the insides with a knife to expose the seeds — a.k.a the “caviar” —, and place them alongside the beans inside a jar. Then, fill the jar with 1 cup of alcohol (vodka, Everclear, or even rum) until everything is covered, and give it a good shake. You should store it for at least 1 month — the longer, the better — in a cool and dark place, shaking the jar once a week. A piece of cake!
How Long Does Vanilla Extract Last
Generally speaking, vanilla extract is a product that can last for years without losing its goodness. Nevertheless, while imitation vanilla is similar to pure vanilla, both are made from different blends of ingredients. That not only cause the richness of flavor to vary between the two but also causes their shelf life to vary as well.
Most imitation vanilla extracts come with a best-by date, but that doesn’t mean that the liquid will go bad after that date. It has more to do with the fact that it may lose flavor over time than with it going bad per se.
Actually, it’s unlikely that the extract will spoil unless a contaminating agent enters the bottle. More likely, it will simply lose its potency after 4 years or so after the manufacturing date. And the longer the time after that date, the more it will lose its flavor.
So, does imitation vanilla extract go bad? Not really if stored properly, but if you really want to get the most out of it, it’s better to use it in some cookies and cupcakes before the 4-year mark.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Just like any other ingredient, pure vanilla can go bad from external contaminants, but does pure vanilla extract go bad over time? Nope, it does not. If stored properly, it will actually age like a fine liquor.
Pure vanilla extract has a virtually indefinite shelf life because the main ingredient from which it is made is alcohol. As you may already know, alcohol is an excellent food preservative, so the natural vanilla flavor will remain intact over time.
The alcohol content of pure vanilla extract may also cause its volume to decrease over time, but this is nothing to worry about. Rather, it will increase the concentration of the extract.
PSA, while it may last 10+ years safe and sound, we don’t suggest you keep it for that long. Just in case!
How To Tell If Vanilla Extract Is Bad
If you want to know if the vanilla extract that’s been sitting in your kitchen cabinet for who-knows-how-long has lost its strength or gone bad, there are several ways you can go about it. Let’s start with the first thing everyone would do — check its appearance.
Check For Changes In Appearance
Vanilla extract should have a beautiful dark amber color, but if you notice that it has become darker or has sediment settled at the bottom of the bottle, try giving it a good shake. Sometimes the appearance of the extract can change naturally, especially if it has not been used in a long time. But if you see that the liquid has gone pale, with impurities floating inside of it or with some kind of mold on the bottle cap, toss it out.
Make Sure It Doesn’t Smell Bad
Our sense of smell is usually the most reliable tool for determining if anything has gone bad, and in the case of vanilla extract, that rule also applies. If your extract still smells the same as it did when you bought it, it can still be useful even if you haven’t used it for a long time.
Vanilla extract should give off a slight alcohol smell, with strong floral notes. If this is not the case and there is an unpleasant scent coming off the bottle, you may want to let it go.
Give It A Taste
Not everyone wants to taste something they feel is bad, but it’s one of the most immediate ways to check. If you taste any off-flavors, it’s probably due to cross-contamination. You may have left the extract open, which caused it to catch the flavor of a liquid smoke sitting next to it. If that’s the case, the vanilla will no longer have the same sweet quality you bought it for in the first place.
It may also happen that the vanilla doesn’t have a weird flavor per se, but a flat one — especially if it’s imitation vanilla extract. Either way, the smartest thing to do is to get a new bottle.
How To Store Vanilla Extract
Storing vanilla extract, whether imitation or pure, is easy. You won’t need to refrigerate it or place it in special containers — just a cool, dark place and a tightly closed dark glass bottle. But just to be more specific, let’s break down what else you can do to keep your precious extract in top condition.
Keep It In A Cool And Dark Place
Where you store your vanilla extract will be as — or more — important than the type of extract you choose, as this will ensure that any bottle is kept in optimal condition whenever you need a few drops.
The place where you store it should be dark, cool — close to room temperature —, and away from an oven or other hot surface that could warm up the liquid. Also, avoid places where sunlight can reach the bottle. Essentially, pantries and kitchen cupboards are your safest bet.
Can vanilla extract go bad if you don’t keep it in a dark place? Not really, but it will lose some of its quality if you expose it to warm and bright environments.
Make Sure The Bottle Is Sealed
Vanilla extract does go bad if you don’t store it in a sealed bottle, and that’s because bacteria or bugs could easily get in. Also, the liquid can evaporate if it’s pure vanilla extract, or even pick up unwanted scents from other ingredients nearby, such as vinegar or fish sauce.
To prevent any of these scenarios from taking place, keep the bottle tightly sealed, preferably using a tight-fitting cap — not a cork.
Don’t Put Other Foods Into The Bottle
A fundamental part of keeping your vanilla extract as good as the day you bought it is to ensure cleanliness when handling it. Always keep it in a sterile, well-sealed container, and do not introduce spoons or stirring sticks that you have already used in other foods. Although vanilla extract does not go bad on its own, food particles do, so avoid cross-contamination.
Avoid Moist Environments
Moist environments are a no-no when it comes to properly storing vanilla extract. If we allow a drop of water to enter the vanilla extract, its composition could change and trigger undesirable reactions in the liquid. Either alter its taste, change its appearance, or worse — make it go bad if it’s dirty water. So store it away from the dishwasher, or any other source of moisture.
Fun Fact: Vanilla extract is not only a treasure trove for the baking world but also the healthcare world. You see, vanilla products contain compounds — such as vanillin — that have been shown to have several potential health benefits. We’re talking antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even anti-cancer properties. There’s nothing better than a sweet ‘n natural health booster!
Vanilla Extract FAQs
Can You Get Sick From Expired Vanilla Extract?
Vanilla extract can expire, but the shelf life of vanilla extract will mainly depend on the purity of the product, not its expiration date. Imitation vanilla or a liquid blended with other elements will most likely be more susceptible to the passage of time.
However, if you use expired vanilla extract, chances are that it will not pose a health risk as long as it does not have any contaminants in it. Rather, it may just have an unexpected odor or taste, or perhaps just a loss of intensity.
Still, while it is unlikely that you will get sick from expired vanilla extract, you are better off not taking any risks.
Should Vanilla Extract Be Refrigerated After Opening?
Many ingredients need to be under cold temperatures to preserve properly, but does vanilla go bad if you don’t refrigerate it? Not at all. In fact, as a rule of thumb, most ingredients commonly used in baking should not be refrigerated.
Vanilla extract has very good preservation properties on its own without the need to be refrigerated. If it is kept too long in cold environments such as the fridge, its quality may decrease instead of remaining stable. Just keep it in your pantry, that is the best place to store it.
How Long Does Vanilla Extract Last After Expiration?
If it is an imitation extract, the label will show an expiration date close to 4 years after its bottling. After its expiration date has passed, it can last a few months or even a year without entirely losing its properties. But when it comes to pure commercial or homemade extracts — following the proper instructions —, you can have vanilla extract for a lifetime! Or at least it is estimated to last 10+ years.
Can Vanilla Extract Grow Mold?
We already know that vanilla extract does go bad under certain external factors, but can it grow mold? Well, fatty vanillin oils can give the illusion of mold, but vanilla extract by itself will never grow mold. The extract contains high amounts of alcohol, so it does not make a good breeding ground for bacteria.
However, if left out unopened for too long, harmful bacteria can make their way into the bottle and contaminate it. Remains of other foods and even water can cause mold to grow in the liquid or in the bottle cap, but if you keep it clean and take proper care when storing it, you should not have to worry about the appearance of those microscopic enemies in your vanilla extract.
Why Does My Vanilla Extract Taste Like Alcohol?
Contrary to popular belief, vanilla extract by itself does not taste particularly pleasant. Rather, it has a strong taste, with hints of alcohol that can overwhelm the palate of some. At the end of the day, it’s a concentrated extract, so it’s only logical that it doesn’t taste like vanilla ice cream.
The thing is that pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol to be considered well made, as it is what helps extract the vanilla flavoring from the beans, so it is normal that it tastes somewhat alcoholic. Especially if it is a homemade vanilla extract or a freshly bottled one.
If you’re worried about your desserts getting a slightly alcoholic aftertaste from a splash of vanilla extract,
you can add another vanilla bean pod to the bottle — or just wait.
Time is always your best friend when it comes to pure vanilla extract. If you keep it in your pantry for a few months you will notice the alcohol flavor fade considerably.
Should Vanilla Extract Smell Like Alcohol?
As mentioned above, pure vanilla extract is made with alcohol, so it is completely normal to catch a whiff of alcohol when you open the bottle. In fact, if you bought a pure extract that was recently bottled, the alcohol smell will likely be stronger than the one that was bottled a while ago. It means it’s high quality, not that it’s spoiled.
If you strongly dislike the alcohol smell and want to get rid of it, a quick fix you can do is to add a bit of sugar to the bottle — 1 tablespoon of sugar per half-quart of vanilla extract will do the trick. This will speed up the aging process and get rid of that slight boozy smell.
BTW, if you want a vanilla extract that does not contain alcohol, just look in your nearest store for a bottle labeled “alcohol-free”.
Should Vanilla Extract Be Cloudy?
Vanilla extract shouldn’t be cloudy, but if yours is and it passes the smell test, you can still use it. Long story short, that appearance is most likely due to exposure to low temperatures — like the freezer or refrigerator. Vanilla extract in general, contains flavonoids that separate when subjected to very cold temperatures, causing degradation in the product and a cloudy appearance.
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