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In Search of the Best Vanilla

By Hannah Crowley Published

Cyclones, theft, petrochemicals, market swings—vanilla is anything but boring. We delve into this fascinating world and find the best products for your kitchen.

Vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor and fragrance. It comes in two forms: pure vanilla extract, which is derived from the seed pods of vanilla orchid vines, and synthetic vanilla, which is manufactured in a lab. Just 1 percent of the world’s vanilla is “real”; the rest is imitation.

We call for vanilla widely in desserts, quick breads, and breakfast recipes, both for its flavor and for its ability to act as a flavor potentiator, enhancing our perception of chocolate, coffee, fruit, nuts, and sweetness. When we last evaluated vanillas in 2009, a real extract won. Since then, though, the price of pure extract has skyrocketed. Pure vanilla extract from McCormick, one of the most well-known brands, costs 33 percent more now than it did back then. Meanwhile, the price of imitation vanilla has remained flat.

Why Is Real Vanilla So Expensive?

The price of vanilla beans currently hovers around $270 a pound, healthily exceeding the price of silver and making vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. Vanilla growing on the vine is sometimes called “green gold”; once harvested and cured, it’s “black gold.”

The astronomical prices come down to supply and demand. In the last decade, food Goliaths such as Unilever and Nestlé have moved toward using more “natural” ingredients, which has led to an increase in demand for pure extract. And Mother Nature has not been kind to Madagascar, the island that produces 80 percent of the world’s vanilla beans. In 2017, Cyclone Enawo wiped out 30 percent of the island’s vanilla bean crop, causing prices to skyrocket in an already volatile market.

The price of vanilla beans currently hovers around $270 a pound, healthily exceeding the price of silver and making vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron.

Josephine Lochhead, president of Cook Flavoring Company, a California-based vanilla importer, said the company had “significant” quantities of cured vanilla on the ground in Madagascar, ready for shipment, when Enawo struck. The beans were so valuable that after the storm, they hired guards and private planes to transport the vanilla off the island.

Companies that use vanilla are reacting to the shortage in all different ways. Cheryl Pinto, who purchases flavorings for Ben & Jerry’s, one of the top-selling ice cream brands in the country, said, “There’s normally a boom and a bust, but this cycle is very long,” exacerbated by the storm. Pinto told us that the company has thus far absorbed the extra cost instead of passing it on to customers, a decision that many businesses—from mom-and-pop bakeries to international corporations—have had to grapple with. Joanne Chang, owner of eight locations of Flour Bakery + Cafe in the Boston area, said they’ve scaled back the amount of vanilla they use in their recipes. And Bobbie Lloyd, chief baking officer of Magnolia Bakery in New York City (which has more than 25 locations worldwide), told us that they stopped using vanilla beans for a while because they couldn’t get any. Now that they have beans again, they keep them locked in a safe.

A Vanilla Taste-Off

So how does all this affect the vanilla we buy at the supermarket? To find out, we rounded up 10 of the top-selling products in the country—seven pure extracts and three imitations. The price range was dramatic. We paid $0.12 an ounce for the least expensive imitation and $6.19 an ounce for one of the pure extracts. We tasted all the vanillas uncooked in pudding and frosting and then pitted the top-rated pure extract against the top-rated imitation in cake and cookies. But first, we had to understand the differences between the two styles.

Vanilla pudding made using different vanilla extract products is portioned in preparation for a blind taste test.

How Pure Vanilla Extract Is Made

Pure vanilla extract is derived from the fruit of any species of vanilla orchid, with Vanilla planifolia being one of the most common sources. It’s thought to have been first cultivated by the Totonacs of Mexico before spreading to the Aztecs, the Spanish, and beyond. Though the plant was transportable, no one could get it to bear fruit without the help of native bees. That is until 1841, when Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave on the island of Réunion, located east of Madagascar, figured out how to hand-pollinate the plants. This is still done today, making vanilla a labor-intensive crop.

After harvesting, which is also done by hand and mostly on small farms, the beans are cured. First, they’re blanched or wilted to kill yeasts and fungi, which prevents rot. This can be done in the sun, in an oven, in hot water, or in a freezer. Next, in a process known as sweating, the beans are wrapped in cloth and put in hot boxes to help develop flavor. The beans are then dried over the course of several weeks and later conditioned, or kept in closed boxes for several months, to fully mature their flavor. Finally, the beans are sorted, graded, and exported. Vanilla extract is made by soaking the beans in liquid, typically a mixture of alcohol and water (check out our DIY method).

How Imitation Vanilla Is Made

The faux stuff is flavored primarily with synthesized vanillin, the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans. More than 15,000 tons of pure vanillin are industrially manufactured each year using a chemical process that starts with a substance called guaiacol. Guaiacol can be manufactured from components of clove oil, wood pulp, or other sources, but most of the world’s supply is derived from petroleum. Petroleum is a controversial source, though indeed common—many household items, including aspirin, are made with it.

According to Matt Hartings, associate professor of chemistry at American University, the vanillin is diluted with a liquid such as alcohol or propylene glycol, and some producers add other flavorings, such as cocoa or tea extracts, for complexity of flavor. Caramel coloring is also usually added to make the mixture look more like pure extract.

Tasters write comments about three samples of Cook’s Illustrated Vanilla Icebox Cookies as part of a comparison of different vanilla extract products.

Our Vanilla Tasting Results

We tallied the results of our first two tastings, frosting and pudding, and found that an imitation won, followed closely by a pure extract. The rest of the rankings were a jumble. We were surprised. We knew from past tastings that imitation vanillas could be good in baked goods, but we were shocked that Baker’s (a budget imitation product made by McCormick) won tastings in which the vanilla was stirred in at the end, uncooked. We scrutinized ingredient lists and called in experts to help us understand why.

For the most part, our tasters could not tell the difference between real and fake vanilla flavor. Bill Carroll, adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University, said he’s not surprised. Vanillin that is synthesized in a lab is identical at the molecular level to vanillin derived from an orchid and thus will taste the same.

We had vanillin levels tested at an independent lab and found that the imitation vanillas ranged from 0.32 to 0.64 grams per 100 milliliters; the pure extracts had just 0.03 to 0.10 grams per 100 milliliters—so the product with the most vanillin had 21 times as much as the product with the least. In general, we liked stronger vanilla flavor, and the product with the second-highest vanillin level at 0.58 grams per 100 milliliters, Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor, was our overall winner. But there was something interesting about Baker’s ingredient list: It included vanillin as well as ethyl vanillin. Chemists we spoke with said this vanillin has been modified to be two to four times stronger; Hartings called it “superboosted.” And our tasters approved: “Lingering; smells like a vanilla bean pod,” said one.

But What About the Real Stuff?

Pure vanilla extract has some innately divisive qualities. First of all, per regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a “pure vanilla extract” must contain at least 35 percent alcohol. Imitation vanilla typically contains less alcohol or none at all. Some tasters liked boozy notes, but others found frosting and pudding made with some of the pure extracts to be too alcohol-forward. 

Second, vanillin is only one of the roughly 250 flavor volatiles found in pure vanilla extract. When the flavor is extracted from the pods, everything comes along for the ride. This means pure extracts can be incredibly complex. We often liked the direction they went in; tasters described Simply Organic, our top-rated pure extract, as “floral” and “woodsy, in an oaked chardonnay kind of way.” But sometimes the flavors were a bit askew. Notes such as banana, cotton candy, and almond weren’t welcomed in a classic vanilla pudding. This was exacerbated by the fact that the pure extracts tended to have less vanillin and more alcohol, and sometimes booziness and other flavors crowded out the classic vanilla flavor our tasters preferred.

Flavor differences can come from every stage of vanilla production, from harvest to bottling, as well as the location and weather. Most of the extracts in our lineup that use real beans source them from Madagascar. One also uses Ugandan beans; it had the lowest vanillin level, and our tasters found it mild. The other outlier uses beans solely from Indonesia; it was a bit too fruity. We preferred rich, buttery, nutty, bourbony notes. Products that use beans from Madagascar had more of these and rated higher overall.

The faux vanillas, on the other hand, were simpler—just plain ol’ classic vanilla flavor. We liked both, but in the end our tasters favored simple, singular vanilla flavor over busier-tasting products.

So, Which Vanilla Should You Buy?

Well, it’s complicated. In the head-to-head battle between our top-rated imitation, Baker’s, and our top-rated pure extract, Simply Organic, Baker’s won both times. Even our editor in chief, Dan Souza (yes, I’m throwing you under the bus here, Dan), came out of the cake tasting and said, “Who knew? I like imitation vanilla.” But Simply Organic was still good, as were many of the other pure extracts. Like your taste in music, it’s a personal choice. Do you want to listen to a soloist or a symphony? Some people will never buy an imitation vanilla because it’s made from petroleum, because it’s not “real,” because it’s not as interesting or complex, or because they want to support small farmers. Others simply cannot justify the price of pure vanilla extract, and that’s fair, too. And still others, perhaps the data-driven among us, will purchase solely based on the rankings from our blind taste tests. For that reason, we’ve named a winner in each category. Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor ($0.98 for 8 fluid ounces) is our top imitation vanilla and overall winner, and Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract ($12.99 for 4 fluid ounces) is our winning pure extract. Which team are you on?

Taste Test Vanilla

Cyclones, theft, petrochemicals, market swings—vanilla is anything but boring. We delve into this fascinating world and find the best products for your kitchen.