Vanilla is one of the most popular and versatile flavors and scents. We all know how to use vanilla extract in baking recipes, but there are lots of other uses for vanilla extract around the house. Much more than just a flavor enhancer in baked goods, vanilla is great for many household uses such as: neutralizing odors, enhancing savory dishes, and as a natural insect repellent.
There’s really no wrong way to use vanilla. Just remember that you only need a few drops for most uses (you can always add more later if needed). So dust off that bottle of vanilla and let’s get creative!
What’s the difference between real vanilla extract and artificial vanilla?
First things first, yes, there is a difference between real vanilla extract and synthetic vanilla, most notably the price. A bottle of artificial vanilla extract costs a mere fraction compared to the real deal. Why?
There are a number of reasons. One has to do with the process involved in making pure vanilla extract. Vanilla beans come from a climbing orchid plant. Most of the vanilla we use today comes from an orchid plant from Mexico (Vanilla fragrans planifolia). The vanilla beans (also referred to as pods), are the fruit of this plant. Vanilla plants begin producing fruit after 3 years and are hand-pollinated (1).
Vanilla beans are picked, then processed. First they are sweated and fermented to coax out the flavor. Next they are dried and cured. The whole process can take months. Over time, the beans develop vanillin, a natural substance which gives the beans a rich vanilla flavor and the aromatic smell of vanilla.
Artificial vanilla uses a type of man-made synthetic vanillin that’s commonly based on lignin, a natural agent found in wood.
Real vanilla beans develop over 200 different aromatic compounds which is why the real stuff in a bottle is so pricey. Synthetic vanilla extract doesn’t have anywhere near the depth of aroma and flavor of real vanilla beans.
But that doesn’t mean that you should rule out artificial vanilla completely. It still is useful around the house.
Tip: For household uses such as neutralizing odors, artificial vanilla works just fine. Save your real vanilla extract for uses in cooking and adding to foods to get the benefits of real vanilla.
Other uses for vanilla extract around the home
1. Removes unwanted smells
Moisten a cotton ball with a few drops of vanilla extract and place in any small bowl in an area that needs freshening up such as:
- Musty drawers
2. A natural air freshener for the whole house
A tip from Reader’s Digest says to put a couple drops of vanilla extract onto a lightbulb. Once the light is turned on, the heat from the light helps to disperse the smell of vanilla throughout the house. Apparently it’s an old real estate agent trick.
3. Make your own DIY vanilla-scented room spray
Forget about chemical-filled air room sprays. With only water, artificial vanilla extract, and a mist bottle, you can enjoy the scent of vanilla in any room with a few spritzes. It’s important to get a proper mist bottle rather than a spray bottle which tendds to disperse too much liquid.
From The Make Your Own Zone, here’s a simple recipe for DIY recipe for vanilla room spray.
- 3 tablespoons of vanilla extract
- 1 cup of water
- A mist bottle
Use a funnel to directly pour water and vanilla extract into a mist bottle. Swirl gently to mix. Enjoy your new vanilla-scented room freshener!
Easy ways to use vanilla to enhance or complement flavors
Vanilla extract is a flavor enhancer—it doesn’t alter the structure of your baked or cooked foods. So feel free to add a few drops here and there. Here are some other uses for vanilla extract to improve your culinary creations.
4. Add to hot beverages
One of the easiest ways to use vanilla is to add it to hot beverages. Check out these ideas:
- Add a few drops of vanilla to warm milk and honey—the ultimate comfort drink.
- Spruce up your morning coffee with a hint of vanilla. You’ll be less inclined to heap on the sugar when coffee has a rich vanilla flavor.
- Substitute vanilla extract for vanilla syrup in your London Fog. All you need is Earl Grey tea, steamed milk, and a few drops of vanilla.
5. Add vanilla to savory dishes
Most of us only associate the use of vanilla with sweet dishes, but it’s time we all changed that. Vanilla extract is great for adding depth and complexity to savory dishes as well. If you have pure vanilla extract, here’s the time to take advantage of its rich flavor profile.
- Add a splash of vanilla to savory and rich soups like butternut squash.
- Cut back the acidity of tomato sauces by adding vanilla extract during the last few minutes of cooking.
6. Flavor your own yogurt
Plain yogurt is cheaper to buy than flavored varieties and has a fraction of the added sugar. You can jazz up plain yogurt by adding in your favorite toppings with just a touch of honey or sweetener of choice. Try vanilla extract with coconut flakes and a dollop of honey.
There are so many flavor combinations that would go well with vanilla. Try adding vanilla to a variety of smoothies with pumpkin, coconut, banana, and strawberry to name just a few.
8. Enhance pancakes, waffles, and French toast
Breakfast, bruch, or “brinner” is better with pancakes, waffles, or French toast. Up your game with a splash of vanilla flavoring.
Spritz up your cocktails with a splash of vanilla! Check out these recipes that call for vanilla:
- Creamy Coconut Hot Buttered Rum (via In The Raw) – A comforting drink for chilly days.
- Jus de Bissap (via Make a Cocktail) – A tart, summer-y drink with a twist.
- Acid Sweeter (via Bar None Drinks) – A refreshing non-alcoholic drink with lime juice.
10. Baked or roasted fruit
Sweeten roasted pears, apples, or peaches without a ton of sugar. Lightly drizzle a bit of vanilla extract to enhance the natural fruit flavors.
How to use vanilla extract for health and body
11. A natural perfume
So many store-bought perfumes contain vanilla notes. Save your money and just dab a few drops of vanilla extract (pure, preferably), onto a cotton ball and dab onto pulse points. Just be careful not to stain your clothes! While vanilla extract by itself won’t last as long as other “real” perfumes, it definitely works in a pinch to freshen up.
12. Keep insects away
While most people enjoy the scent of vanilla, most bugs do not. Keep bugs at bay by making a natural insect repellent with 1 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of vanilla. Dab the solution onto exposed skin to repel mosquitoes and blackflies from biting.
13. Treat minor burns
You’ve likely heard of many natural home remedies for treating minor burns from aloe vera to egg whites. Count pure vanilla extract as another natural home burn remedy too. For minor burns, apply a few drops of pure vanilla extract onto a cotton ball and dab gently on the wound. The alcohol in vanilla extract provides a cooling sensation as it evaporates providing temporary relief.
- Emery, Carla (2012). The Encyclopedia of Country Living, 40th Anniversary Edition. Sasquatch Books. ISBN-13: 978-1-57061-840-6.
- Sharp, Michael Dennis (2009). “Analysis of Vanilla Compounds in Vanilla Extracts and Model Vanilla Ice Cream Mixes Using Novel Technology,” Ohio State University. Accessed October 2020.
- Barber, Trish (12 December 2014). “6 Unusual Uses for Vanilla Extract,” Reader’s Digest. Accessed October 2020.
- The Make Your Own Zone, How To Make A Vanilla Air Freshener Spray, https://www.themakeyourownzone.com/diy-vanilla-air-freshener-spray/. Accessed October 2020.