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The 6 Most Similar Substitutes for Mahlab

It’s common to see Mahlab listed as an ingredient if you are making a Greek or Middle-Eastern dish. Unfortunately, many kitchens do not have it on hand. Luckily, there are quite a few viable replacements.

Here are some mahlab substitutes that are most similar to the spice’s rich taste:

  1. Almond extract and star anise
  2. Almond/ cherry liqueur and kirsch
  3. Ground cardamom and fennel seed
  4. Tonka beans and bitter almonds
  5. Pure anise extract
  6. Cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaf

This article will explain how these combinations and ingredients mimic mahlab’s flavor and fragrance and what makes them great substitutes for the spice.

1. Almond Extract and Star Anise

Almond extract with star anise is the best combination for finding a substitute that best mimics mahlab’s flavors in different recipes.

The almond extract gives you that nutty almond taste that comes with mahlab, while star anise adds licorice notes. For the best combination, buy the powdered version of star anise or grind it.

When mixing these two ingredients, make sure that you use a little more almond extract than star anise, as almond is the dominant flavor of mahlab. Both ingredients of this substitute have a very strong flavor, so make sure that you use the mixture in moderation to avoid overwhelming the other flavors of your dish.

Mix a teaspoon of almond extract with half a teaspoon of anise. Adjust the ratios from there, depending on your taste.

If you can’t find these two ingredients at your local store, you can order online. Watkins Pure Almond Extract (Amazon Link), has no artificial colors or flavors and is made in the USA. It’s also free of typically frowned-upon additives like gluten, GMOs, and corn syrup. 

There is also Natural Plus Star Anise Powder, conveniently stored in a shaker bottle that can be tightly sealed to preserve the natural aroma of the seeds. Like its counterpart above, it’s free of preservatives, coloring, and additives.

2. Almond/ Cherry Liqueur and Kirsch

This is the second-best substitute you can use in place of mahlab.

Most people have these in their bar, so sourcing shouldn’t be an issue. If you don’t, you can find both ingredients in the liquor section of your supermarket or most well-stocked liquor stores.

Almond liqueur and cherry liqueur give your substitute the almond or cherry notes of mahlab. Kirsch is a dry, clear brandy made from the fermented juice of the black morello cherry. Though distilled from cherries, this fruit brandy isn’t sweet; it has a hint of bitterness.

To use this mixture, replace a tablespoon of mahlab with a teaspoon of liqueur and a similar amount of kirsch.

This substitute is made of two different liquids, so it may not be the best ingredient to use instead of mahlab in baking. Mixing in more additional liquid when baking will change the dry-wet ingredient ratios. 

3. Ground Cardamom and Fennel Seed

The ingredients for this substitute can be the easiest to get your hands on. You can usually find them in your local supermarket or grocery store.

Ground cardamom has an intense sweetness and a similar fragrance to mahlab. As for the ground fennel seeds, they give your substitute that anise flavor or licorice notes.

Though similar to mahlab, this combination doesn’t give the same flavor profile entirely. Still, it’s excellent for sweet and savory dishes and should complement most bread and cookie recipes.

However, if you’re baking Greek tsoureki bread, the flavor of this substitute is a little too different from mahlab for this pastry. You should use a different mahlab alternative.

These ingredients by themselves are used in a wide variety of Middle Eastern dishes. So, even if you’re not specifically looking for a mahlab substitute, you can keep this on hand if you like cooking Middle Eastern food.

Both ingredients are available online. As far as what to buy goes, I recommend Simply Organic Cardamom. It’s certified organic, and the fruit seeds are harvested from Guatemala (If you didn’t know, Guatemala produces some of the best Cardamom in the world). It also doesn’t have seed pods and comes with an intense flavor that works well with a variety of dishes.

For the fennel seeds, go with Pride of India- Fennel Seed. It has a container that makes it easy to scoop out the spice and sprinkle it from the bottle. It also doesn’t have additives and is minimally processed to preserve its natural oils and flavor.

Related 6 Substitutes for Black Pepper to Spice up Your Cooking.

4. Pure Anise Extract

Pure anise extract is a quick and easy-to-find substitute for mahlab as well, mainly because it has licorice notes similar to mahlab. 

You can make your anise extract with two simple ingredients. Soak two teaspoons of anise seeds in 6oz (170 g) of vodka. This isn’t a quick option, though, as the DIY extract will only be ready to use in about two months. The anise flavor will intensify if you leave the seeds in for longer.

To add the almond taste commonly associated with mahlab, mix almond essence with the anise extract. A splash of the extract and essence will be enough for your recipe.

Be sure to use this substitute sparingly, as its flavor is potent. Always add a little, do a taste test, then adjust from there.

McCormick Pure Anise Extract has no MSG added. It’s also made without the addition of any corn syrup. 

5. Cinnamon, Cloves, and Bay Leaf

This combination is a little differently flavored from mahlab, but still a good substitute for savory foods. You can use this mahlab substitute in:

  • Meat rubs
  • Marinades
  • Sauces
  • Slow-cooked meals

This option is not fit for all mahlab dishes, though. Specifically, it’s not suited for sweetbreads and other baked goods.

6. Tonka Beans and Bitter Almonds

Tonka beans, with their cherry aroma, have been used as a substitute for mahlab for decades. That, in itself, is enough testament to them being a great substitute.

However, not everyone has a diet that can accommodate tonka beans. It’s also a little tricky to source them because some countries do not allow their importation.

Bitter almonds, the second ingredient in this substitute combination, adds another aspect to the mahlab flavor. However, this ingredient is also tricky to find in the US because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labeled both the bitter almond tree and its kernels illegal for their potential toxicity.

One tablespoon of mahlab can be substituted with 1 ½ teaspoon of roasted and ground tonka beans and 1 ½ teaspoon of bitter almonds. Instead of bitter almonds, you can add almond extract to your tonka beans.

Pros and Cons

Here is a simple table to compare the mahlab substitutes listed here:

Almond extract and star anise– Closest flavor to mahlab– intense flavor, needs careful moderation when used
Almond/ cherry liqueur and kirsch – Second most similar flavor among mahlab substitutes
– usually available in well-stocked liquor stores and in the liquor section of the grocery
– Liquid ingredients may change baking ingredient ratios
Ground cardamom and fennel seed– very easy to find in groceries/ supermarkets
– suitable for both sweet and savory dishes
– flavor profile is somewhat different from mahlab
– not suitable for baking tsoureki
Pure anise extract– easy to find and a quick mahlab substitute– DIY anise extract (anise seeds soaked in vodka) takes two months to soak before being ready
Cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf– Great for savory foods- meat rubs, marinades, sauces, slow-cooked food– not suitable for baking recipes
Tonka beans and bitter almonds– Tonka beans used as mahlab substitute for decades
– bitter almonds can be replaced with almond extract
– importation is not allowed in some countries
– bitter almonds are considered illegal by FDA; potential for toxicity

Final Bite

Mahlab is a difficult ingredient to find, and substitutes that are easier to find and mimic the flavor of the original spice can be used.

The substitute closest in flavor to mahlab is the combination of almond extract and star anise. For a quick mahlab substitute, you can use just pure anise extract. Ground cardamom and fennel seed are more similar in flavor to mahlab and still very easy to find.

Other substitutes are not suitable for all mahlab recipes. Some ingredients for mahlab substitutes, like tonka beans and bitter almonds, can be tough to get.

For more, check out Can You Freeze Cooked Baklava? (And Then Reheat It).