Extract Exact: Picking the Perfect Flavorings (Part One)

They’re called flavorists: chemists who create flavors for a living. It’s a bizarre job but one in great demand.  And it isn’t all fun and games: the typical flavorist has around seven years of training, plus examinations, under their belt before beginning their career.

Despite the difference in their working environments from chefs–often factories or laboratories, as opposed to industrial or private kitchens–these two careers one thing in common:

A passion for developing flavor to make food more palatable and innovative. Michelle Hagen, a flavorist who is located in Cincinnati, has fond memories of aromas shaping her childhood, from birthday cakes to chicken noodle soup.

And though she does develop flavors for things such as bubble gum, in what the New York Times called a “Willy Wonka Fashion” , it essentially her ability to imitate the real that makes her successful in her work.

For personal and private chefs, looking to create flavors comes not from developing complex chemical compounds, but instead achieving bold flavors through enhancing natural ones. And so, while the approach is very different, chefs could take a tip from flavorists like Ms. Hagen: work with flavors you’re both familiar and passionate with, and enhance them.

Why Flavoring in Baking is Essential

Every chef has heard about the importance of salt in a dish. But extract and flavorings, while commonly called for in most sweet baked goods, often go underappreciated.

“The role of [flavoring extracts and oils] is like the role of salt on the savory side: it enhances all of the other flavors in the recipe”, explains Emma Christensen, editor for The Kitchn. Without extract, the complex flavorings cannot be properly brought out, and baked goods will tend to taste bland, with the sweetness overpowering any other notes.

Not only do extracts “extract” notes of flavor, but they enhance natural sweetness with less actual sweetener added and bring flavor in small and powerful doses, something especially important for baked goods that are lower in fat or sugar.

Flavoring Oils vs Extracts

But there’s a significant difference between regular extract and flavoring emulsions and oils. Knowing what to use when is essential, and can make or break a cake.

Pure extracts are alcohol based, and made from extracting flavors, while flavoring oils are produced by extracting essential oils. The biggest difference is that oils are far more concentrated and thus, far more powerful. Oils also have to be refrigerated, unlike extracts, which are generally shelf-stable.

Concentrated oils are most commonly used for making candy, or flavoring candy coating. Extracts, which are far less concentrated, are usually used for baked goods, ranging from muffins to breads to pastries and cakes.


Extracts come in a number of subtle flavors, but also more innovative ones. The most commonly used are almond and vanilla extracts, simply because they complement nearly anything and enhance flavors without overpowering them. However, recipes that have citrus (such as lemon poppyseed muffins) may also benefit from citrus-based extracts, like lemon or orange. Other common extract varieties include anise, banana, butterscotch, cherry, cinnamon, coconut, coffee, maple, mint and raspberry. Most of these will be found in a speciality store.

It is important to note that there is more than one type of pure vanilla extract. While you’ll likely find only one variety in mainstream grocer’s, the varieties of vanilla extracts may be something for chefs particularly interested in elevating desserts may want to investigate.

Tahitian, Madagascar and Mexican vanilla extracts, however, can run a little bit expensive, so it’s best reserved for chefs promoting top tier, specialty desserts.

Essential oils come in a scour of flavors as well, but the most common are peppermint, spearmint, anise, and cinnamon.

Pure or Imitation?

An important thing to consider when using extracts is whether to purchase pure or imitation. Pure extracts are derived from natural flavors and alcohol based. Pure extracts will be clearly labeled “pure”; otherwise, it is likely an imitation, though most imitations also note this.

The debate over pure vs imitation is less simple than chefs might think. Imitations are typically sucrose based and rely on artificial flavoring. These are much more cost effective, but, with additives as well, many chefs are willing to shell out for authentic extracts. Also, there are some who have concerns about possible negative health connotations with artificial extracts.

But for chefs looking to save a little money might secretly wonder: is the “pure” extract really worth it, at least in terms of taste? And would anyone taste the difference?

Serious Eats sought to solve by implementing  a taste test. For the samples, they used four varieties of extract: real vanilla extract, imitation vanilla, Madagascar Bourbon, and whole vanilla beans (as opposed to extract).

Using “teaspoon for teaspoon equivalency” the extracts were sampled in homemade sugar cookies, ice cream, and eggnog. Criteria for judging included overall; complexity; and intensity of vanilla flavor.

The results were shocking: with the exception of the ice cream, where the whole vanilla beans scored lower, testers could tell no statistically significant difference between flavorings.

Of course, this is a small sample size, far from an emblem of scientific accuracy, and it does nothing to address a chef’s overall vision of what ingredients feels true to his or her message and the dish being prepared. But it may be something to consider.


In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at how to use extracts effectively in recipes.


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