Learn the differences between vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste, and vanilla beans, as well as how to use each one (and substitutions, too).

By Kristin Tice Studeman
Updated November 08, 2018

Here's the thing about vanilla: It comes in many different forms—from vanilla beans and vanilla extract to vanilla bean paste—and chances are you have questions about all of it, including: What is vanilla extract? What is vanilla bean paste? Is paste a good vanilla extract substitute?

It's important to figure it all out because vanilla is an essential addition to any home cook and baker’s arsenal. It has an intense, rich flavor that enhances both sweet and savory dishes in a way that is hard to replicate with anything other than vanilla.

You've got questions, we've got answers. Keep reading for everything you need to know.

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Pure vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans steeped in alcohol and water. It is a rich, complex flavor and is dark brown in color. Look for ‘pure’ on the label to make sure it’s not the imitation kind—the fake vanilla extract has a bitter aftertaste and won’t add that delicious flavor you’re looking for. Vanilla extract is definitely the most popular vanilla option out there because it’s usually the easiest to find at your local grocery store and the most affordable (wse it in your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe). If you'd like to go homemade, follow the instructions below:

How to Make Vanilla Extract:

Caveat: it takes a lot of vanilla beans (about 6 beans per cup of alcohol) which can be expensive. But if you do have several leftover beans, place them in an 8 ounce jar and cover with 1 cup vodka (vodka has a neutral flavor so it won't mask that pure vanilla flavor).

What Are Vanilla Beans?

In the realm of vanilla options out there, the whole vanilla bean offers the strongest, most intense flavor because it’s vanilla in its purest form. This is also why they are the most expensive vanilla out of the vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and vanilla paste. You can find them in specialty shops and select grocery stores. Look for plump and smooth dark brown pods that are shiny and fragrant and avoid buying vanilla beans that look dry and dull.

When using them, cut the end of the vanilla bean pod and the split it lengthwise down the middle using a sharp paring knife. Gently scrape out the seeds from the top down to the other end. These little brown specks add an intense, sweet flavor to any sweet or savory dish, from ice cream and cakes to hearty stews.

Save the vanilla bean pod once you have scraped out the seeds. You can place it into a container of granulated sugar or use it to infuse your favorite spirit (that's how you make homemade vanilla extract). Or try it in this Honey Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee

What Is Vanilla Bean Paste?

Vanilla bean paste is a rich, thick paste that contains a blend of the scraped-out vanilla pod seeds and vanilla extract. It is a great option if you can’t find vanilla bean pods or you feel like the pods are too much work. You still get the classic, rich vanilla flavor that the pod offers but you don’t have to prep and seed the pods yourself. It is not always easy to find vanilla bean paste, but if a recipe calls for vanilla and you can’t find the pods or extract for any reason, vanilla bean paste is a great vanilla extract substitute (especially for vanilla frosting, custard or ice cream).

To sum up: use the seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean in place of a teaspoon of extract or paste. Use vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste interchangeably. And a teaspoon of either paste or extract works as a great vanilla bean substitute.