The Vanilla Equation

“Ask the Expert” features advice from Wade Winters, Vice President of Supply Chain for Consolidated Concepts Inc. Please send questions for this column to Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine Executive Editor Barbara Castiglia at

This post was written by Charlie Lewis and Wade Winters.

Q: What alternatives are available when the price of vanilla skyrockets?

Because of the demand and costly process to produce, vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.

A: If your restaurant or bakery uses any reasonable amount of vanilla, you have seen the impact of a price increase, which was the result of a cyclone that hit Madagascar in early March.  Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla, supplying nearly 75 percent of all available supply.

Vanilla is a flavoring derived from a flowering plant (orchid) that grows on a vine, and takes three-plus years to grow, harvest and dry before it can be sold. It is a very labor-intensive item to process, and is subject to many threats that can impact the crop such as weather and insects.  The industry lacks advanced machinery; therefore, all planting, harvesting, and drying is done manually. Currently the demand is exceeding supply due to consumers wanting natural ingredients. In fact, Nestle Crunch bars now contain real vanilla instead of artificial.  Because of the demand and costly process to produce, vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.

So, what alternatives can a chef or baker consider? 

Here are a few ideas:

  • Similar to what is available with butter, chocolate and oils; there are vanilla blends which have a similar taste and aroma to vanilla but are lower in cost
  • Maple syrup is found in many recipes replacing vanilla
  • Almond extract is a possible option which is strong in flavor so less is needed
  • Vanilla essence is a synthetic compound used to recreate the flavor of vanilla
  • Vanilla powder is a mixture of ground vanilla beans or vanilla oleoresin or both, with other blending ingredients
  • Vanilla flavored liqueur is another popular option
  • Fior di sicilia which is an extract of citrus, vanilla and flower essences is a possible substitute
  • Imitation Vanilla is available in various levels of quality and price. If your dessert is getting baked and/or has bold flavors, you can likely use the imitation variety.

There are options; however, for the baking purist there is no substitute and vanilla will come at a premium price.