How we tested
In two past tastings of vanilla extract, we reached a conclusion that still amazes us: It matters not a whit whether you use real or imitation vanilla, because you can’t tell the difference when you bake. But at a recent editorial meeting, we took a poll: Did that mean anyone had stopped buying the real thing? No. Our test cooks believed firmly that natural vanilla is the best choice. So we returned to the test kitchen for a definitive tasting.
The Ultimate Showdown: Real versus Imitation Vanilla
In our newest quest for great vanilla, we sampled 12 of the country’s top-selling supermarket brands of vanilla extract, both fake and pure, this time stirring them into milk and pudding before trying a few choices in cake and cookies.
Vanilla is a powerful “flavor potentiator,” meaning it enhances our ability to taste other foods including chocolate, coffee, fruit, and nuts, and boosts our perception of sweetness. While this is true for both pure and imitation vanilla, the choices are far from identical. Scientists have identified around 250 flavor and aroma compounds in real vanilla, while the artificial version has just one: vanillin, the predominant flavor in natural vanilla.
Why Pure Vanilla is Much More Expensive than Imitations
Pure vanilla is made by steeping vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol, with the exact proportions of each mandated by the government. The beans are expensive, grown on flowering orchid vines in only a handful of tropical countries. They take time and painstaking labor to grow, process, and ship, even before they are converted to extract.
Imitation vanilla, on the other hand, is a byproduct of paper production or a derivative of coal tar, chemically manufactured through fairly simple and inexpensive processes. Because it’s so cheap, annual global demand for imitation vastly outstrips that for natural vanilla, at 16,000 metric tons to just 40 metric tons for natural vanilla.
In our supermarket lineup, imitation vanillas cost as little as 18 cents per ounce, compared with up to $4.50 per ounce for natural. In another strike against natural vanilla, most of those 250 flavor and aroma compounds are driven off by high heat during baking or cooking. So if that complex, natural vanilla flavor really can’t be detected, what’s the point of ever buying it?
Tasting the Extracts Themselves
To answer these questions, we tested vanilla in a variety of cooked and uncooked preparations. First, we stripped away competing flavors to taste the extracts themselves. Vanilla experts do this by mixing them in milk; we used an 8-1 ratio of milk to vanilla. Tasted this way, real vanilla extracts clearly won the day. Their greater complexity shone through, with testers detecting everything from notes of honey and maple to licorice and prune.
In this case, imitation vanillas all fell to the bottom half of the rankings. Tasters said they had a strong, pleasing aroma, “like vanilla cookies that have already been baked,” but little vanilla flavor and a taste that was bitter and medicinal. More research revealed that imitation vanilla is known to taste harsh if too much is used—which helps explain our tasters’ reaction.
Tasting Vanilla Extracts in Pudding
But you would never use vanilla extract in such a heavy concentration. So we sampled them again, in vanilla pudding. Now the ratio of dairy to vanilla was a whopping 56 to 1. Our recipe adds vanilla extract at the end of cooking, off the stove, to help preserve its flavor. Despite this precaution, many of those distinctions we had noted among vanillas in the milk tasting were dimmed. Some aroma and flavor still may have been driven off by the warmth of the cooked pudding and muted by the eggs, butter, and sugar. Our results shuffled, but only slightly—except for one imitation extract that shot from seventh place up to the top of the ranking.
Explaining "Boozy-Tasting" Extracts
One of the most striking differences between pure and fake vanilla involved alcohol flavor. While federal guidelines require 35 percent alcohol in pure vanilla extract, there’s no minimum for alcohol in imitation vanilla, and manufacturers have an incentive to use as little as possible to make synthetic vanillin soluble: If they use more, it costs more to make. This explains why tasters kept describing real vanilla as “boozy,” an adjective rarely applied to fake vanilla. But they also found the real stuff nutty, spicy, and more complex.
Tasting Vanilla Extracts in Baked Goods
Real vanilla’s advantage in milk and pudding was clear, but most of time, we’re using vanilla extract in cookies and cakes. To help our tasters focus, we limited our baked-goods tasting to just three samples. After averaging the scores from the milk and pudding tastings, we chose the top-ranked pure vanilla, the highest-ranked imitation, and the bottom-ranked imitation. If tasters couldn’t tell these three vanillas apart in baked goods, we knew the game was up; it really didn’t matter. We baked three yellow cakes and three batches of vanilla cookies—and waited.
Discovery: Vanilla Flavors Bake Off at Higher Temperatures
To our surprise, each recipe showed two distinct outcomes. In cake, the pure vanilla came out on top but just a hair ahead of the high-ranking imitation. In cookies, the pure vanilla dropped to last place, and that high-ranking imitation soared to first place. As it turns out, flavor and aroma compounds in vanilla begin to bake off at around 280 to 300 degrees. Cakes rarely exceed an internal temperature above 210 degrees; cookies become much hotter as they bake. As a result, pure vanilla kept a slight flavor advantage in the cake—but not in the cookies.
Verdict: Real or Imitation Doesn't Really Matter for Baking
So what’s our conclusion? If you’re only buying one bottle of vanilla for cooking, baking, and making cold and creamy desserts, our top choice is a real extract. If you only use vanilla for baking, we have to admit there’s not much difference between a well-made synthetic vanilla and the real thing. Speaking to pastry chefs, we learned that many buy an arsenal of vanilla extracts, using cheaper imitation for baking and pure for confections made with moderate or no heat, such as puddings, pastry cream, and buttercream frosting.
Our Favorite Vanilla Extract
In the test kitchen, we go through so much vanilla extract that we buy it in bulk. So we’ll be ordering our winner by the case. We also recommend our top-rated imitation vanilla for its “mild and gentle” vanilla flavor.
McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract
This vanilla won top praise for being “strong,” “rich,” and “spicy,” with a “sweet undertone.” It had “clear vanilla flavor with nice balance” and notes of “dried fruit,” “caramel,” and “chocolate,” “like Kahlúa or Bailey’s.” In pudding, it was deemed “a step above,” with an extremely “pleasing finish.”
CF Sauer Co. Gold Medal Imitation Vanilla Extract
Tasters felt that this imitation vanilla ranked with the pure extracts. “Lovely, seemed like pure vanilla,” said one; another described it as “mild and gentle; maybe it’s not real, but it tastes good.” Others said it was “perfumy,” with notes of “toasted rice” and “buttered popcorn.”
Rodelle Pure Vanilla Extract
“Smoky” and “earthy,” with “caramel,” “prune,” and “chocolate” notes, it was praised for offering “deeper, richer ‘bass tones’ of flavor.” Prepared in pudding, it was “subtle,” a “gentlemanly vanilla: well-balanced, mature, a suggestion of alcohol and smoke.”
Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
“Sweeter and more pleasant” than other vanillas, it lacked the “boozy burn” of some of the pure extracts and offered a “sweet floral flavor,” with “honey” and “maple” notes. In pudding, it was “like burnt marshmallows,” with a “nutty” finish.
CF Sauer Co. Pure Vanilla Extract
“Sweet,” with “a nice depth” was a common reaction to this extract. Some noted that it had “elements of tea,” “chocolate,” and “a little caramel” and was “clovey,” with “assertive vanilla” flavor. But the alcohol struck many as “overpowering.”
Spice Islands Pure Vanilla Extract
“Sweet,” but with a “harsh, boozy finish” and a “peaty, almost smoky flavor,” it “smells great, but tastes blah.” In pudding, it was “much too smoky and heavy,” though some found it “potent” and “complex.”
Durkee Pure Vanilla Extract
The ingredient list shows “vanilla bean extractives” in last place, after corn syrup. “Good aroma, but flavor is straightforward and somewhat lacking,” said one taster; others called it “mild,” with a “malted flavor.” In pudding, it was “subtle.” In sum: “decent but unremarkable.”
Morton & Bassett Pure Vanilla Extract
Has a “sharp scent, followed by a sharp and unforgiving flavor”; “heavy on the alcohol,” it was “slightly herbaceous, a mix of floral and earthy.” In pudding, tastes “like melted Breyers vanilla ice cream,” but with a “harsh” aftertaste that “hits sharply in the back of the throat,” leaving “a little burn.”
McCormick Premium Imitation Vanilla Extract
Includes cocoa and tea extractives “and other artificial flavorings” to mimic the complexity of pure vanilla. Tasters detected “some vanilla, but that dissipates, and tastes almost fruity,” with “nuts,” “cherry cola,” and “coffee” notes. In pudding, it was “bright,” like a “girly cocktail.”
McCormick Gourmet Collection Organic Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract
With a “barely there aroma and flavor” that came across as “faint, but otherwise fine,” this gourmet line from McCormick is not worth its high price. In pudding, tasters said there was “not much vanilla coming through.”
Adams Pure Vanilla Extract
“Mild,” “thin,” “sharp,” and “weak,” this came across as “all nose, no flavor,” with an aftertaste of “bitterness at the back of the throat like Robitussin.” In pudding, it was “bland” and “medicinal,” though a few tasters found it “floral.”
Durkee Imitation Vanilla Flavor
Tasters liked its “sweet” aroma, but complained that this imitation had “virtually no” vanilla taste, and what there was seemed “way too mild,” like “Carnation Instant Breakfast.” In pudding, tasters described it as “soft-serve vanilla” and “commercial-tasting.”