Best Vanilla Practices

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2009

Does it matter when you add vanilla extract as you make baked goods and other sweets? As we researched vanilla for our tasting, manufacturers told us that to maximize flavor, the extract should be added while creaming the butter and sugar for cakes and cookies. Their theory: If you add vanilla with butter, much of its flavor gets captured by the butterfat instead of evaporating during baking. We tested this claim by comparing two batches of sugar cookies and yellow layer cake, one made with the vanilla added after creaming the butter and sugar and the other with the extract added as the butter and sugar creamed. As much as we love small tweaks that lead to big differences, tasters could detect no difference between the finished baked goods.

On the other hand, when we repeated a similar experiment with pudding, crème brûlée, and flan, timing did make a difference: Stirring the extract into the cold custard base before cooking not only gave the volatile vanilla compounds too much time to evaporate, the prolonged exposure to heat also drove off flavor. Adding the extract after the custard base was removed from the heat yielded more intense vanilla flavor.


When you add vanilla to cookie or cake batter doesn't impact flavor.


For more intense vanilla flavor in custard-based desserts, add it after cooking.