Tonka beans are black, shriveled seeds that are delicious infused through liquids or grated into desserts. They have a unique bitter vanilla and almond flavor with an intoxicating cherry, vanilla, and almond aroma.
If you can't get your hands on this ingredient where you live, then you're going to need an alternative. We've pulled together a list of our favorite tonka bean substitutes so that you can complete any recipe without the original ingredient.
How can I replace Tonka beans in a recipe?
If you need a replacement for tonka beans in cooking, then your best choice is a combination of vanilla bean and mahlab. Other options to consider are vanilla and almond extract, maple syrup, or kirsch. Although none of these alternatives will perfectly mimic the flavor and aroma of a tonka bean, they’re in the ballpark and won't be out of place in most recipes.
1. Mahlab and vanilla bean
Unless you're familiar with Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisine, you may not have used mahlab (aka mahleb) in the kitchen. It's an aromatic spice that is produced by grinding cherry seed kernels into a powder. It tastes a lot like cherry but also has a floral, almond-like flavor with a hint of vanilla and a bitter aftertaste. These flavor notes are a lot like what you'll get from tonka beans. However, it's best to also toss in a vanilla bean or splash in some extract to intensify the taste and aroma of vanilla.
In the United States, a well-stocked grocery store may range mahlab. Otherwise, take a trip to a specialist spice shop or try a Middle Eastern or Greek grocer. Mahlab is also easy to find online.
To replace one tonka bean in a recipe use a 3” vanilla bean combined with half a teaspoon of mahlab.
2. Vanilla and almond extract
For an easy-to-find tonka bean replacement, you can use vanilla and almond extract. They are both ingredients that are easy to find in mainstream grocery stores. This combination provides most of the flavor notes you'd get from tonka beans. However, you won't get the bitterness and the fragrance will be diminished.
To replace a Tonka bean in a dessert or savory recipe use a teaspoon of vanilla extract and half a teaspoon of almond extract.
3. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is another quick and easy replacement for tonka beans which you can use if you're in a pinch. This is a great option for replacing the vanilla taste, but you'll be missing the bitter almond notes.
Using maple syrup will add extra liquid to the recipe so if you're making baked goods it could affect the ratios. You may need to reduce the other liquids used in this recipe to compensate.
Kirsch is a liqueur that makes a useful tonka bean alternative. It has a comparable vanilla and cherry flavor along with a bitter aftertaste. It's also not full of sugar so you won't oversweeten a dessert recipe by adding it.
Kirsch lacks almond flavor so you may also want to add half a teaspoon of almond extract.
Culinary uses for tonka beans
Tonka beans are used in a similar way to vanilla, delicious added to sweet dishes. They pair with fruit like apricots and strawberries and are a delectable match for cinnamon or chocolate.
The beans are a dry spice that are generally ground into other ingredients like flour or icing sugar. It adds flavor and aroma to bread, macarons, puddings, and other baked goods. Tonka beans can also be infused into custard, syrup, milk, creams, and spirits.
Creative mixologists use the tonka bean in cocktails to match the spicy notes of cognac and whiskey.
Although tonka beans are traditionally used in sweet food, some chefs are experimenting with this ingredient in savory dishes. Stirred into an umami-packed jus, sprinkled into a sauce, or used to spice up a fish curry; just a few examples of how tonka beans are utilized in commercial kitchens.
Fast facts about tonka beans
- Although Tonka beans are used in many parts of the world, they are banned in the United States due to their coumarin content. This is an anticoagulant that has the potential to be toxic if taken in large quantities.
- The seeds are harvested from the Camaru (Dipteryx odorata) tree. The wrinkled seeds are about one inch and are housed in a hard shell.
- They have many uses and are popular in pipe tobacco, essential oils, and tonka bean absolute which is used in perfumes.
- The Camaru tree is commonly found in Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana.
Tonka beans are an aromatic, flavorful spice that are useful in cooking. Due to health risks, they aren't available in some countries like America. To replace tonka beans in a recipe use vanilla bean and mahlab as your best option. Other possibilities to consider are vanilla and almond extract, maple syrup, or kirsch.
Keep in mind that tonka beans are one of the most unique ingredients you'll find so finding a close substitute is tricky. The replacement options we've suggested won't be out of place in a recipe. If you're trying to make an authentic dish, with tonka beans as the hero, then you're probably better to try a different recipe. There are so many other dishes on offer which use easier to find ingredients!
What recipe are you looking to use tonka beans in? Please let us know in the comments below.