From banana bread oats to homemade whipped cream, extracts take sweet treats up a notch.
Credit: Elizabeth Laseter

My mom has always been a great baker, but she never divulged her secrets on exactly how she made her sweets taste so good. It wasn’t until my bridal shower when she gave me the most thoughtful gift—a handwritten book of all her favorite recipes—that I finally discovered the secret to her best-ever banana bread: a teaspoon of maple extract.

Using maple extract made my banana bread taste (almost) as good as my mom’s. And I’ve always been a sucker for real vanilla extract in cookies. A recent trip to the grocery store brought me to the baking aisle, and I saw dozens of different extracts lining the shelves. I was curious, and I wanted to know more about what punch those little bottles of liquid gold could bring to baked goods. So I started experimenting—here’s what I discovered.

What Are Extracts?

Not all bottles in the grocery store are true extracts—some are flavorings, artificial extracts, or emulsions.

An extract is any substance made from extracting part of a plant—such as spice, nut, fruit, or herb—using alcohol. The most popular Western flavor is vanilla extract, an essential flavor ingredient in many baked goods like cookies, brownies, cakes and more. True vanilla extract is regulated by the USDA: It must contain a minimum of 35 percent alcohol and 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter. But beyond vanilla, the definition of an extract gets a little looser.

Products labeled as a “flavoring” or “artificial extract” are typically made with water, so they have a thinner consistency than an extract and impart a more subtle flavor. Emulsions contain some kind of gum (like xanthan), giving it a texture resembling a loose paste that doesn’t cook off during baking. As such, it can yield a stronger flavor, says Messier, noting emulsions have grown in popularity among bakers in recent years.

“The words extract and flavoring are used interchangeably, and they really should not be,” says John Messier, owner of Bedford, Virginia-based Southern Flavorings. “The way we define it, if something has alcohol in it, we’re going to call it an extract.”

But the alcohol in this case doesn’t make a boozy treat—since you typically add extracts to a batter before baking, the alcohol cooks off and leaves just the flavor behind.

In any form, flavorings don’t have any nutritional value when used in the small quantities most recipes call for (usually around a teaspoon or two), so they’re a great way to add big flavor to recipes—without any extra calories or fat.

How to Pick Which Extract to Use in a Recipe

I found nearly two dozen types of extracts and flavorings available in grocery stores or online. Besides the ever-popular vanilla extract, there’s coffee, coconut, maple, and butter, plus more that fall into these four flavor profiles:

Nuts: Almond, hazelnut, pistachio, black walnut

Fruit: Banana, raspberry, orange, lemon, lime, cherry, strawberry

Liquors: Rum, brandy, amaretto

Herbal: Anise, ginger, mint, peppermint

When using extracts in baking, they should be added at the end of the mixing process, recommends Sahina Ashare, senior brand manager for Minnesota-based The Watkins Co., which produces 24 extracts and flavorings.

“Some of our favorite uses include adding extracts to beverages (like coffee or smoothies), jazzing up marmalades or curds (think almond-orange marmalade or cherry-vanilla curd), and sweeting breakfast items (like oatmeal, waffles and pancakes),” says Ashare.

Here, some more creative ways to use extracts:

  • Add maple, butter, black walnut, or amaretto extract to lend deeper flavor to banana bread.
  • Add a few drops of your favorite extract (coconut or nut flavors work well) and a little bit of sugar to warm milk, then froth and add to strong coffee or espresso for homemade lattes.
  • Brighten your favorite healthy sugar cookie recipe recipe with a splash of lemon extract, or make them taste extra decadent with a bit of Vanilla Butter & Nut, as Messier recommends.
  • Inject flavor into smoothies, protein shakes or milkshakes with extracts. You can create a healthier version of McDonald’s Shamrock Shake by blending a handful of ingredients and a drop or two of mint extract.
  • Make a fruity French toast by adding a few drops of raspberry extract to your batter and topping the finished product with fresh berries.
  • Who doesn’t love fresh whipped cream? Take the flavor up a notch by adding an extract to match the flavor profile of whatever you’re serving it on. Think hazelnut extract for chocolate mousse, ginger extract for pumpkin pie, or lemon extract for angel food cake.
  • Have "dessert" for breakfast by spiking overnight oats with a few dashes of vanilla, coconut, coffee, or Vanilla Butter & Nut extract. For “banana-bread” oats, add banana extract and cinnamon, then top with fresh bananas.

How to Store Extracts

Pure vanilla extract, and most other extracts, should never be refrigerated. Just store them in a dark place like a cupboard and they’ll keep for two to three years, says Messier—except for vanilla, which will keep indefinitely. “People will tell you vanilla gets better with age,” he says. Extracts containing citrus oils like lemon or orange, however, should be refrigerated after opening and can last up to one year.