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Does Vanilla Extract Go Bad? Here's How to Tell If It's Expired

Spoiler: You can keep using that bottle of vanilla extract for a long while.

<p>Chris Rogers/Getty Images</p>

Chris Rogers/Getty Images

Vanilla extract is a key ingredient in many baking and dessert recipes, lending a big flavor punch from only a teaspoon or two in the batter. But does vanilla extract go bad after a year (or five) in your kitchen cupboard? The short answer is no.

That vanilla extract in your cabinet is likely safe to use, even if you can't remember when you bought it. As to the flavor quality in a 5-year-old bottle, that's another question entirely. Here's everything you need to know about when vanilla extract goes bad and how to prevent spoilage with proper storage.

Does Real Vanilla Extract Expire?

Pure vanilla extract—the kind made with real vanilla beans and at least 35 percent alcohol—has an indefinite shelf life. While safe, the flavor may deteriorate after a few years, especially if it's been stored improperly.

The flavor can become stronger or weaker, which may especially impact recipes where vanilla flavor is front and center, such as vanilla ice cream or vanilla cake. The best way to test if the flavor is still good is a sniff test. If the vanilla extract's smell is faint and lacks that familiar sweet scent, you probably should invest in a new bottle.

Imitation Vanilla Extract Shelf Life

Imitation vanilla extract—made with lab-produced vanillin rather than actual vanilla beans—can be a cost-effective way to get that vanilla flavor, but imitation vanilla extract doesn't tend to last as long as pure vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla extract should be good for up to a year after the expiration date. After that, it's best to invest in a new bottle before your next baking session.

Some lower-cost vanilla extracts or imitation extracts contain sugar and other additives that affect their shelf-life and make them more susceptible to spoilage. With these, look out for an off smell, diminished flavor, or even mold, especially if the bottle's been stored improperly. Check the label to see if your extract may be subject to degrade quicker due to added sugar.

How to Store Vanilla Extract

Like many other foods and ingredients, exposure to temperature extremes can cause the quality of your vanilla extract to decline, so a room-temperature spot is the place to store it. Stow it in a cupboard away from heat-producing appliances (like stoves and dishwashers) and heat registers.

As you may have guessed, given that vanilla extract is usually shipped in dark bottles, light is not your extract's friend. Keep it in a dark space and not on display to reduce its exposure to light.

Some experts recommend decanting small amounts of a large bottle of vanilla extract to use over a few months. This helps avoid excessive opening and closing of a large bottle, which exposes the extract to air and potential contamination.



Warning

Don't store your vanilla extract in the fridge. It's not necessary because vanilla extract is shelf-stable, and refrigeration may make your extract turn cloudy.



Vanilla Extract Uses

The best way to ensure that your vanilla extract doesn't go bad is to use it up! While baked goods like cakes and cookies are a good start, there are lots of ways to use vanilla extract that don't require baking, and here are just a few:

  • Add it to flavor cocktails or smoothies.

  • Put a couple of tablespoons in your coffee pot before brewing to create vanilla coffee for your favorite fancy coffee drinks.

  • Transform honey with it.

  • Add some to salad dressings and sauces.

  • Use some to freshen the air in your home by dousing a cotton ball in vanilla extract or pouring a tablespoon into a simmer pot.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it OK to use expired imitation vanilla extract?

Yes, it's safe to use expired imitation vanilla extract. Like the real stuff, the flavor deteriorates but does not pose a health hazard. Nevertheless, since the imitation is cheaper than real vanilla extract, it's best to just throw it away and replace it with a new bottle.

How long can I store vanilla beans?

When stored properly, vanilla beans can last in the pantry for up to 2 years. This dried spice should be kept away from moisture and temperature fluctuations and should never be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. If mold appears on your vanilla beans, likely caused by too-humid conditions, they're unsafe to use and should be thrown out.

How do I make my own vanilla extract?

You can easily make your own supply of vanilla extract from vanilla beans. Just soak six beans in a cup of alcohol, like vodka. Place the bottle in a cool, dark place for at least 2 months, giving it a shake every week or so. The longer the vanilla sits, the stronger the flavor becomes.

What is vanillin?

Vanillin is the main flavor compound extracted from vanilla beans. It's derived from vanilla beans to make pure vanilla extract and is made synthetically for use in imitation vanilla extract. Despite their identical chemical composition, synthetic vanillin tastes quite different and requires other additives to more closely mirror the taste of real vanilla extract.

Related: A Baker's Guide to the (Many) Types of Vanilla

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