What are extracts?  Epicurious’s Food Dictionary defines them as “concentrated flavorings derived from various foods or plants, usually through evaporation or distillation.” There are solid extracts (such as a bouillon cube), liquids (such as vanilla) and jellylike extracts.

Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food explains that broadly speaking, “an extract is any substance separated  from a more complex mixture by physical or chemical means.”  This definition would include coffee, tea, salt, sugar, and meat stock. 

When added to a recipe, what do plant extracts do?  They add flavor, without adding volume or altering the consistency of food.

In the West, the most popular plant extract is vanilla, which is produced by mashing vanilla beans in a water-and-alcohol mixture. Other well-known plant extracts are the following: rose water (made by distilling rose petals and very popular in Arab cuisine), citrus oils (pressed from the rinds of oranges, lemons, etc.), almond, anise, mint, and soy sauce. 

Plant extracts are 35% alcohol, which explains why alcoholics have been known to guzzle vanilla extract when more common inebriating beverages are not available.

Here’s an interesting tip: If vanilla is hanging around your kitchen cabinet and you don’t do much baking, believe it or not, you can also use it as a deodorizer.  A couple of drops in a can of paint can decrease the paint odor.  A skunk attacked your car?  A cloth saturated with vanilla extract may solve your problem.


Davidson, Alan.  The Oxford  Companion to Food, second edition.  Oxford University Press, 2006.

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.  “ODORS: What’s That Smell?”

Epicurious Food Dictionary.  “Extracts”

Interview with Desi at the Spice House
Evanston, IL

Extract Shelf Life
Handling Tips: 
Keep tightly closed; volatile oils escape.
Extracts will generally last (maintain quality) indefinitely until they evaporate. But, if you doubt that, sniff and, if you wish, taste. If the scent and taste are good, they will do their job in your recipe. If there's no aroma, discard.
Spice House, Evanston, IL

You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.