Does Vanilla Extract Go Bad? Does It Expire?

Vanilla is anything but boring. This delicate pod is picked from an orchid, treated with heat and humidity to intensify the flavor, and dried for months.

True vanilla extract can seem quite expensive. However, once you've cooked with properly cured vanilla, imitation vanilla will no longer be welcome in your kitchen.

How long does vanilla extract last? Vanilla beans and pods cured in alcohol are thought to have an indefinite shelf life, but we encourage cooks to use it up within two years.

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Brown Vanilla Extract in a Glass Bottle

Vanilla extract is made by adding dried vanilla pods to alcohol.

Generally, this is a white alcohol such as vodka that has an indefinite shelf life, but some vanilla manufacturers add the pods to bourbon for a unique flavor and interesting application.

  • What does vanilla extract taste like? Real vanilla extract is alcohol based, and has the burn of strong spirits.
  • Is vanilla extract bad for you? Like any product containing alcohol, it can be abused. This is a product that can be toxic to children and should be stored out of the reach of anyone who might abuse it.

Types of Vanilla Extract

Brown vanilla extract is the most common. The brown color is caused by the brown tone of the pod and the beans; over time, vanilla pods steeped in alcohol will release their color into the liquid.

Does vanilla extract expire? Brown vanilla extract, steeped in alcohol, has an indefinite shelf life.

White vanilla extract is a bit of a misnomer. Vanilla extract made with real vanilla is naturally brown, so white vanilla extract is inherently not real vanilla.

However, you can remove the seeds from a vanilla pod and add the pod to milk or cream to create a "white" or at least non-brown form of vanilla flavor; this will last as long as the milk does.

You can also rinse the pod at that point and add it to white granulated sugar, creating a longer-lasting white vanilla product.

Vanilla Pods and Beans

Per experts with Epicurious, the orchid that produces vanilla pods blooms but once a year and must pollinated by hand. The labor intensity of growing vanilla orchids contributes to the expense of this delicate fruit, as do the aging and curing requirements.

Buying and Storing Vanilla Beans and Pods

Madagascar Vanilla Beans

Dried vanilla beans should be leathery, not stiff. Once they start to get brittle, they're out of oil, so if you find good vanilla beans, use them!

How long do vanilla beans last? If you can use them before they dry out and handle them correctly, vanilla beans can be used repeatedly.

  • Add a vanilla bean to milk and heat it for luscious hot cocoa or steamed milk.
  • If the bean still has a vanilla odor, add it to a sugar container to create vanilla sugar, an excellent option for baking.
  • Pods can also be added to a container of sugar.

If the pods are kept in a cool, dark space, they will age until they're dried and ineffective. Take care not to refrigerate them; they may mold

Why Is Vanilla Extract So Expensive?

Most of the world’s vanilla beans come from Madagascar where vanilla bean farmers are struggling to provide the world with these delicious ingredients.

There are 3 reasons why vanilla extract is expensive:

  1. Global demand created a shortage driving up prices.
  2. Farmers in these countries have to contend with thieves.
  3. Vanilla beans take about 3 years to grow from seed to being mature enough to harvest and immature beans are often picked in effort to keep up with demand. These immature beans have poorer quality.

However, good vanilla extract is expensive and worth every penny. Imitation vanilla is just that; generally a chemical soup of colors and flavors that add little to your baked goods. If you're struggling to find a good source of real vanilla extract, consider making your own.

Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten offers an extremely simple recipe for homemade vanilla extract. It takes dried vanilla beans, vodka and time. You can customize the flavor by adding more beans as you like, and this product can be stored at room temperature indefinitely.

Final Thoughts

Does vanilla extract go bad? The shelf life on this product is nearly indefinite if kept in cool darkness. However, we think it’s best to use it up within 2 years.

As with many spices, good vanilla extract is not cheap.

Great vanilla will encourage you to find recipes to use this complex and delicious product, so don’t be afraid to invest in a bottle and enjoy!

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