Published February 1, 2012. From Cook's Country.
Just ¼ teaspoon of almond extract can perfume entire cakes with the unmistakable scent of almond. Given its potency, will any brand do?
To find out if brand matters, we tasted four nationally distributed supermarket brands (three pure and one imitation) in whipped cream and in our recipe for Almond Pound Cake.
Pure almond extract is made from three primary ingredients: alcohol, water, and bitter almond oil. The last is extracted from almonds or (more frequently) their kin, drupes, the botanical term for stone fruits such as peaches and apricots. The almond flavor comes from benzaldehyde, a substance in the kernels of drupes. Interestingly, none of the brands we tasted get their bitter almond oil solely from almonds. One brand uses apricots; a second withheld the exact source but acknowledged that it was from stone fruits; and a third uses a combination of almonds, apricots, peaches, plums, and cherries, according to company spokespeople.
Imitation almond extract also starts with water and alcohol, but it gets its flavor from synthetic benzaldehyde, created in a lab. Our tasters couldn’t tell the imitation almond extract from the pure stuff. In fact, the imitation extract came in second, praised for its “nutty” and “buttery” flavor. Possibly, the manufacturer uses more benzaldehyde, because the synthetic is cheaper.
The brand we ranked last (recommended with reservations) was the only one that derives some of its almond flavor from actual almonds. We found it too mild. The other three brands we recommended. Our favorite was “potent” and “bold”. It’s 90 percent alcohol, by far the highest percentage among the four extracts we tested. The alcohol in almond extract acts as a solvent to extract flavor. Generally, the higher the percentage, the more flavor is extracted, which likely accounts for the “lingering” and “pronounced” taste of our winner. Even if it wasn’t made from nuts, this extract tasted the “most like actual almonds.”