Vanilla extract is probably the most common aromatic intensifier in American dessert, whether it plays a starring or a supportive role—consider its presence in a batch of vanilla ice cream versus chocolate chip cookies.
In the former, vanilla takes center stage as the ice cream's defining feature, while in the latter, it serves to amplify and enhance the aroma of butter and chocolate. In either case, remove it at your own peril—structurally speaking, the desserts will be fine, but their flavor may fall flat.
I love vanilla enough to have an entire guide to my favorite vanilla extracts, but it's certainly not the only game in town. So, whether you're looking to tweak the flavor of a favorite dessert and turn it into something new, or you merely want to enhance its existing profile, here are the other aromatic ingredients I use most often, along with tips on how to incorporate them into your own baking.
Instant espresso powder is made from actual, liquid espresso that has been completely dehydrated (often through freeze-drying) to remove all moisture, resulting in a fast-dissolving powder with all the flavor of a properly pulled espresso shot.
This makes instant espresso totally unlike ground coffee, which is solid matter that's incapable of dissolving in batters and doughs, and unable to provide the robust flavor of a high-pressure extraction (itself a key difference between espresso and drip coffee, as Daniel has explained).
And, unlike liquid espresso, instant espresso powder won't alter the hydration of a formula, so the recipe's behavior will remain unchanged. These properties are what make instant espresso so useful in dessert, and an irreplaceable pantry staple for bakers.
While large quantities of this potent ingredient will bring out its full coffee character, subtle use, as with homemade hot cocoa mix, will merely impart layers of bitterness and roasted depth, adding complexity without an overt coffee or mocha flavor.
I use small amounts of espresso powder as a flavor accent in Glossy Fudge Brownies and Vegan Brownies alike, where it helps tame the inherent sweetness of these desserts, while its dark, roasted qualities highlight those same characteristics in the chocolate and cocoa. The idea is for the espresso itself to remain imperceptible, a subtle note that works in the background alone.
With instant espresso on hand, any ice cream, cake batter, frosting, or cookie dough can be doctored to taste. Try a moderate dose for a mellow café au lait kinda vibe, as in my Mocha Mascarpone Icebox Cake, or a more generous helping for a noticeable espresso kick.
In low-moisture formulas, such as Chocolate Swiss Buttercream or eggless cookie dough, instant espresso powder will need to be dissolved in a splash of hot water (or a complementary liquid, such as vanilla extract or rum). Otherwise, instant espresso can be added directly to most cookie doughs, cake batters, and saucy things like caramel and ganache. It can also go straight into puddings and custards, including mousse, pastry cream, or any type of ice cream base.
Taste as you go, in order to dial in the right intensity of flavor.
Medaglia d’Oro Instant Espresso is a fairly common brand that can be found in most American supermarkets, and it works particularly well as a bittering agent. Recently, however, I've become obsessed with the nuance and character of King Arthur Flour Espresso Powder, which is perfect for adding a well-defined coffee flavor to desserts.
Rose water is an herbal distillate made from, well, rose petals. But we're not talking about something ripped off a prom corsage; we're talking about the heady aroma of damask rose. It's commonly, and brilliantly, used in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines, where it can more than stand on its own in desserts like malabi, gulab jamun, Turkish delight, and kanafeh, as well as countless other sweets.
Rose water can be added to taste to literally anything, whether you're dreaming of a classic panna cotta scented with rose water, or whipped Greek yogurt with honey and rose, but I use it most often as a floral alternative to vanilla in fruity desserts.
In these applications, subtlety is key! The idea isn't to taste the rose itself, but to leverage its aroma to heighten that of the other ingredients.
Look for products like Cortas Rose Water or Al Wadi Rose Water at Indian or Middle Eastern grocery stores, in the international aisle of a well-stocked supermarket, or online. You'll often see it sold two-for-one along with orange blossom water, which (as you'll learn below) I heartily recommend as well.
Orange Blossom Water
Orange blossom water is another herbal distillate widely used in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines, with an intoxicating aroma that's floral and complex but not obviously orangey in nature. It smells and tastes nothing like orange juice, or even orange oil, making it impossible to replace.
In part, that's because it's made from the orange blossoms and not the fruit. However, it's also because it comes from not just any ol' orange tree, but the blossoms of the bitter orange. (If you'd like to learn more, Max Falkowitz has written extensively on orange blossom water and how it's made.)
Beyond its place in traditional recipes, like baklava and semolina cake, I like to use orange blossom water as an aromatic in rich nut- or dairy-based desserts, where its breezy lightness seems to magically cut through the fat. It's the secret ingredient in both my New York Cheesecake and my Homemade Pistachio Paste, where it brings out the tangy freshness of the former and the nutty green aroma of the latter.
Of course, orange blossom water is also a natural match for any orange dessert, where it will add nuance and complexity, particularly in recipes that involve cream or vanilla (think Creamsicle flavor). It can also work wonders to brighten the aroma of lackluster blackberries and blueberries, or in recipes where cooking may dull the natural aroma of fresh fruit, as with a cooked fruit swirl for ice cream.
As with rose water, I tend to favor Cortas Orange Blossom Water and Al Wadi Orange Blossom Water, which are sold in all the same locations: Middle Eastern and Indian groceries, the international aisles of well-stocked supermarkets, or online in two-for-one bundles.
While rose and orange blossom waters are two of the most common floral scents in dessert, there are many other flower waters to explore, and some floral essential oils as well, including lavender, magnolia, jasmine, and ylang ylang (a favorite over at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams). You can find all of these among Aftelier's collection of Chef's Essence "flavor drops."
Almond extract is a powerhouse aromatic, whether it's used generously for a bold almond note or in moderation to enhance the aroma of ingredients. I use a few drops in my "vanilla" rolled sugar cookies and Swiss meringue buttercream, where it serves to both highlight their buttery aroma and bring out more dimension in the vanilla itself.
Almond extract can be added to taste in these or any other desserts. Start small for a soft, nutty aroma to open the aroma of butter, vanilla, caramel, stone fruit, and spice, or keep at it until the almond comes through loud and clear.
Do make sure to add the almond extract at the last minute in meringue-based recipes, as its oil content may prevent the egg whites from whipping up to their full peak potential. For example, fold the almond extract in with the cake flour when making an almond angel food cake, or along with the cream for a batch of almond-y Klondike bars. (If you're really feeling that vibe, try a few drops in the chocolate shell, too.)
Almond extract is a staple of the baking aisle in any supermarket, so it's easy to find, but look for brands labeled "pure almond extract." The ingredient list should include nothing more than alcohol, bitter almond oil, and water. If you see the words "imitation" or "flavoring," back away!
If you want to make a dessert with a bold lemon flavor, forget lemon juice, and don't even think about lemon syrup—lemon oil is the answer. It's the essential oil we normally obtain from lemon zest, but in a more concentrated (and convenient) form.
Lemon oil won't make a dessert tangy or acidic—juice is ideal for that—but it works as an easy dose of lemon sunshine to flavor cakes, ice cream, and frosting, or just about anything else. Small amounts can also help bring out the natural aroma of certain fruits, like blueberries, or help round out the aroma of desserts flavored with ingredients such as black tea, lavender, or honey. Or, try adding a few drops to intensify the flavor and aroma of Lemon Meltaways or other citrusy desserts.
As with almond extract, this oil-based ingredient needs to be added last in meringue-based recipes (for example, after you've incorporated the butter in a honey-sweetened Italian meringue buttercream), but it's otherwise a no-brainer to use. Add it to taste, but start small—it's potent stuff!
Look for lemon oil in specialty shops or online—my favorite product is Boyajian Pure Lemon Oil. You can also seek it out in the baking aisle of your local supermarket in the form of pure lemon extract, which is generally lemon oil diluted with alcohol to bring down the cost. The flavor isn't as bold, but it's cheap and effective!
Aside from lemon, there are many other types of citrus oils and extracts available online, such as Key lime oil, bergamot extract, tangerine oil, grapefruit oil, yuzu oil, and so on. Especially when you're dealing with rare citrus, these oils and extracts are a more practical way than the fruit itself to create unusually flavored desserts.
As long as the ingredient list consists only of pure essential oil or, for extracts, essential oil with water and alcohol, there’s generally not much variation in quality—the biggest consideration when choosing a brand is finding one that carries the flavor you want.
Given how quickly I plow through bottles of mint extract at home, I'm a little shocked to discover I don't call for it here on Serious Eats at all! Perhaps that's because I've used it so extensively in my book, BraveTart, whose pages I've crowded with minty grasshopper layer cake, copycat Thin Mints, peppermint marshmallows, vanilla mint sprinkles, mint chocolate syrup, mint chip ice cream, and more.
With a good mint extract, any dessert is a few drops away from becoming a more refreshing version of itself. Try adding a bit to homemade stracciatella gelato, and a bit more to the chips as well! Or add a dash to homemade Fudgsicles to give them a chilly arctic breeze.
The key to success is to familiarize yourself with the different types of mint on the market, in order to find the style you prefer. Items from some brands, like Watkins Pure Mint Extract and Frontier Organic Mint Flavor, contain a blend of peppermint and spearmint oil cut with alcohol (although not necessarily in the same proportions, so the profiles may still differ). This creates a well-rounded, crowd-pleasing mint flavor at an affordable price.
The intensity of these extracts and oils can vary substantially by brand, depending on the type of mint and how it was processed, so always start small. Mint can become overpowering quite rapidly, so it's always best to err on the side of caution.
This list only scratches the surface of the different culinary oils, extracts, and distillates on the market today, so consider this a jumping-off point for exploring new flavors and combinations in the recipes you already love. With just a pinch of this and a splash of that, you'll be well on your way to all manner of creative explorations of flavor.