Vanilla extract is an alcohol solution containing vanillin, an organic compound that is responsible for the vanilla flavor of vanilla beans. It is typically made with ethyl alcohol and is required by law to be at least 35% alcohol and to contain at laest 100g of vanilla beans per liter of extract. The remaining portion of the extract is usually water. Ethyl alcohol is used because it has virtually no flavor of its own and it is very good at extracting the flavor from other substances, like vanilla beans. Alcohol dissolves during baking, leaving your baked goods with a good vanilla flavor and very little trace that the alcohol was ever present at all.
Not everyone wants alcohol in their vanilla extract, however, and many manufacturers produce alcohol free vanillas that contain no alcohol at all for consumers who wish to avoid it. These products are not technically “vanilla extracts” because they don’t meet the legal definition of it, so instead they are known as “alcohol free vanilla flavor.” Most natural alcohol free vanilla flavorings, though they contain no alcohol, are still processed using alcohol because it is the most efficient way to extract the flavor from the beans and ensures that the alcohol-free finished product still has as much flavor as possible. Once the extraction process is completed, the vanilla extractives are combined with ingredients like gylcerine and/or polyproylene glycol, sugar and water to create a solution that is easy to incorporate into baked goods. If a product uses synthetic vanilla flavoring rather than real vanilla beans, it is described as artificial or imitation vanilla flavoring.
Alcohol free vanilla flavorings tend to be slightly sweet and have a more pleasant flavor straight out of the bottle than pure vanilla extract. They also have significantly less vanilla aroma when compared to pure vanilla extract, and that can have an impact on how much flavor is imparted to your dishes. High quality vanilla flavoring will still be expensive, just as high quality vanilla extract is, because it uses a high concentration of good quality vanilla beans at its base – and it will give you the best results when working with alcohol free vanilla.