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I really don't know how to best phrase this question, but do extracts add sweetness or just the flavor? That is, what should I expect from an extract?

For example, say I put maple extract into milk. Should I expect it to be the same as putting maple syrup in it if I use enough? Or if I put strawberry extract into it, is it then going to be as if I blended whatever amount of strawberries with milk without the added bulk of the fruit?

I guess I'm just a bit confused as to what I'm getting, since I've never used them before. I see a lot of baking recipes call for them, but then they also call for significant amounts of sugar on top of it, as well. What if you had, say, strawberry extract and just added more of instead of sugar. What would that do to the taste/sweetness?

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I think you're conflating syrups and extracts.

Extracts are some flavoring oil plus alcohol.

McCormick Vanilla Extract

For example, Vanilla Extract:

Vanilla extract is a solution containing the flavor compound vanillin as the primary ingredient. Pure vanilla extract is made by macerating and percolating vanilla beans in a solution of ethyl alcohol and water. In the United States, in order for a vanilla extract to be called pure, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that the solution contains a minimum of 35% alcohol and 100g of vanilla beans per litre (13.35 ounces per gallon).

There's no sugar in extracts, it's just flavoring... very concentrated flavoring... with a bit of alcohol. It generally comes in very small bottles though large bottles are available for commercial uses.

If you want sweetness and the flavor, try flavored syrups (like they use in coffee bars to make lattes)... but only in beverages and other similar recipes. You can't use these instead of sugar and extract in baking.

Torani Syrups

  • But is it that the flavoring has the sweetness of the original thing then? Referring to my strawberries with milk example, was my thinking there correct? – Ryker Mar 7 '15 at 8:41
  • @Ryker There is generally no sweetness in extracts. If you taste extracts directly from the bottle, they are generally very bitter and taste like alcohol. – Catija Mar 7 '15 at 8:43
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    @Ryker of course it still tastes like strawberry. It just tastes like bitter, alcohol-y strawberry. It is designed to be diluted, sweetened, and cooked, which mellows the bitterness and generally cooks off the alcohol. – Catija Mar 7 '15 at 18:36
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    @Ryker There are a ton of things that taste sweet; what makes them unique is the flavor besides the sweetness. Extracts just have that unique flavor. (Perhaps a helpful analogy: cocoa powder definitely 100% tastes like chocolate, but is not sweet at all.) This is really handy: sometimes you want to add a flavor without adding extra sugar. Maybe you want to make a savory dish taste like orange, so you add some orange extract. Maybe your cookie recipe already has all the sugar it needs, and adding syrup would throw off the recipe, but adding extract works great. – Cascabel Mar 7 '15 at 19:05
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    @ryker a very quick and dirty explanation: humans don't recognize what they eat by taste, they recognize it by smell (smell + taste = flavor). The extracts smell like strawberry, vanilla, maple or whatever. They don't taste like them. – rumtscho Mar 7 '15 at 19:39
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I know this is years later, but this may give more info.

If there is any sugar in an extract, the amount is so small it would not be noticeable. Too much extract to try to gain sweetness and you'll end up with something tasting horrible.

Extracts are concentrated flavors from the plant oils, either pure or with additives. "Pure" means the flavor must be derived just from that source. They are concentrated to the point the nuances and complexity of the original plant/fruit/nut flavor are lost.

To use your example of putting strawberry extract in milk; you can mix a 1/4 tsp. strawberry extract with a drop of lemon extract to create a more balanced flavor. Use maple with a bit of vanilla to create something a bit more complex and pleasing the way the original flavor would be. But you would have to add sweetener to your liking.

Whether or not sugar is in an extract or a flavoring depends on the manufacturer as there is no set standard. Beanilla, Simply Organic, Watkins and McCormick, for example, do not add sugar to their pure extracts. Beanilla and Simply Organic do not add sugar to their other flavorings as well. Nielsen-Massey DOES add sugar to their pure vanilla extracts, but not to other flavor extracts like lemon, peppermint or rose water.

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As stated in the other answers, extracts don't contain sweeteners, or if they do, the dose is miniscule. So you won't actually be adding sweeteners to your product.

But the human sense of taste doesn't work like an analytic chemistry device. It depends on what is in the brain as much as on what is in the mouth. So, for people who have learned to associate sweetness with a certain aroma, the resulting dish will taste sweeter than without the extract. The classic example is vanilla extract for people who grew up with classic European or US baking, they taste it sweet.

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