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What is the difference among the vanilla extract and the powdered vanilla?

When I'm making a certain recipe if it required vanilla extract, is it ok to replace it with powder, and what is the proportion among them?

I am intending to use powdered vanilla in a buttercream recipe from Martha Stewart's recipes, is it recommended to substitute?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

There are different products sold as "vanilla powder". What I have seen is pure synthetic vanillin crystals, without maltodextrine or other stuff in it.

Generally, I would recommend using the extract if available. It is always made from the real plant, and the alcohol dissolves many different flavor compounds from the plant. Even if the powder is a dried extract from the real plant, it may have less flavor than the extract, if it uses less powerful solvents than alcohol, or if some of the dissolved flavors happen to be removed in the process of drying. But you also have the risk of getting synthetic vanillin, which is only one of the compounds which give the plant its aroma. Used on its own, it is rather harsh and one-dimensional. The extract always tastes better than synthetic vanillin.

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Reading labels is crucial; at least here in the US, a very common product is "Imitation Vanilla Extract" which is made with artificial vanillin in a strength to approximate true vanilla extract. I must be labelled correctly, but it does say "Vanilla Extract" on the bottle. For example,… And like you, I am a partisan of the real extract or bean, Cook's Illustrated's tasting panels have consistently rated the artificial product just as good or better in baked goods. Scary. – SAJ14SAJ Apr 23 '13 at 12:10
When I lived in places with vanillin powder (Russia) the flavor was distinctly harsh and shallow. It could be used as a substitute since that's all we had but we only wanted to use a tiny amount so its unpleasantness wouldn't be prominent. – Sobachatina Apr 23 '13 at 14:06

I imagine you are asking about a vanilla powder such as this one from Nielsen-Massey marketed by King Arthur Flour which is vanilla and maltrodextrin, or this one this one, marketed through Amazon claims to be stronger than vanilla extract, and to consist of "vanilla bean extractives [sic], evaporated cane juice, silica, cellulose."

If these are typical products, most of what is in the bottle is filler—and the rest is vanilla flavoring. Both of these particular products indicate that their flavoring is natural, although it almost certainly is created by making vanilla extract, then evaporating the solvent, much as instant coffee is made.

Of course, most of what is in a bottle regular vanilla is alcohol, water, or sugar depending on the specific brand. Only a bit is actual flavorants from vanilla beans.

So the real issues become:

  • What is the relative strength of vanilla flavoring on a measure per measure basis
  • How do the carriers affect a given recipe

I cannot answer the first question—hopefully someone else can provide insight there, but it will probably vary by brand or specific product.

The second property opens up new opportunities for the powders:

  • Since they have no water, they can be added to chocolate without causing seizing
  • They can be used in dry mixes, such as a homemade hot chocolate mix or pancake mix
  • They can be used in coatings or powders, as for powdered donuts
  • They have no alcohol, which may or may not make them acceptable to those who avoid all alcohol for religious reason (I am not expert enough to say this as an absolute, because it is likely alcohol was used in their manufacturer to create the extract used to make the powder)

In most typical applications, you should be able to use one of the powdered vanillas. However, I cannot tell you the ratio of substitution—hopefully your specific product has guidance on its packaging.

The one place I would not try it is a delicate icing (in the case of the second product) as some of the fillers may give it a gritty texture.

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Thanks for your answer, I intended to use powdered vanilla to do a butercream (I updated my quest), so is it not recommended in your point of view? – Zeina Apr 23 '13 at 10:49
I think you will have to see what the texture of your particular product is. – SAJ14SAJ Apr 23 '13 at 11:47
ok thanks, I will check it. – Zeina Apr 23 '13 at 12:07

My best experience is that you should use 1/4 teaspoon of the vanillin powder for each teaspoon of vanilla extract.

I use it for bread dough, donut dough, but never for icing.

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