A Vanilla Taste Test

vanilla sugarIn their ceasing quest for culinary excellence, the cooks in America’s Test kitchen will test every ingredient, every pan and every recipe they come across. I recently read one of their pieces that really struck a chord with me. It was a taste test of vanilla – extract, imitation and whole beans – and since vanilla is such a vital flavor in baking, I found their conclusion that imitation vanilla is just as good in most applications to be very surprising!

Vanilla beans have a wonderfully subtle and complex flavor and, when you taste a custard or something very simple (like vanilla sugar) made with real vanilla beans it is easy to see why vanilla is not a “vanilla” flavor. The test kitchen agrees and heartily recommends going with the real thing – choosing plump, moist beans – when making something very simple where the flavor of the beans really stands out, such as Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. But in cakes, cookies and other dishes that have multiple layers of flavor and a much longer ingredient list, it turns out that the complexity of the vanilla bean (in this case, in the form of vanilla extract) is mostly lost unless a great quantity is used. Imitation vanilla, which has a definite, plain vanilla flavor, came through in the finished product just as well as the real thing – and tasters had a hard time telling the two apart.

Their most recent update to the taste test included a look at “double-strength” vanilla extract, an ingredient often sold from specialty catalogs to appeal to vanilla-loving bakers. The tasters didn’t really care for it compared to regular vanilla. Many found it had an overly alcoholic taste and, while they did have a stronger vanilla flavor, it wasn’t necessarily preferred over ordinary vanilla. And because it retails for 2-3 times the price of regular vanilla, it’s not really worth the expense even if you only use half the amount when you bake with it.

So, while you can never go wrong with real vanilla extract, imitation vanilla can be a good thing to have on the shelf for the average batch of cookies and such. Use the savings to splurge on high-quality vanilla beans to use when flavor really counts in ice cream, a custard or a vanilla bean pound cake.

10 comments

  1. Well, I know what *I’ll* be buying next time I”m out of vanilla… and it will only cost me 99 cents…

  2. hmmm………that was interesting. it would be interesting to see a comparison with swedish vanilla sugar in baking. they don’t have the alcohol based vanilla over there, and i can taste a difference in the swedish recipes when i run out of my Ikea supply. it’s not quite the same as your vanilla sugar recipe though, maybe they use powdered sugar? i think the vanilla sugar tastes better, although like the tests, it’s more noticable in something simple and unbaked like vanilla sauce.

  3. I have swedish vanilla sugar at home and I absolutely love it. I put it on my oatmeal in the mornings and would use it more often, but I don’t want to run through my smallish package so quickly. Odd how that happens, when we want to save something we really like, isn’t it?
    Perhaps I’ll do my own taste test with the Swedish sugar and the homemade…

  4. Wow. I’ve always thought I could taste imitation vanilla because box-mix yellow cake tastes so horrible to me, but it must be something else in the mix that’s bugging me.

    Did you know it’s incredibly easy to make your own vanilla extract? I buy vanilla beans from Penzey’s and make my own extract, and mine costs about a third as much ounce-per-ounce as Penzey’s extract. If anyone wants to know how to do it, email me! arwenelizabethblog AT gmail DOT com

  5. What is this vanilla bean pound cake of which you speak?

  6. That would be an “upcoming” recipe, although you might be able to find one on another blog with some judicious googling =)

  7. I think the very best vanilla is Danncy. It’s from Mexico and years ago it wasn’t actually legal in the U.S. I don’t know why that changed.

  8. I started using imitation about a year ago, when I saw in interview with Chris Kimball and he was asked what are some of the things that have surprised you, and he said imitation vanilla. For someone who likes to bake, it is really great. I buy a large bottle of the fake stuff cheaper than the small bottle of the real stuff.

  9. Gale Gand said the same thing a long time ago when I was watching an episode of Sweet Dreams on the Food Network. She said splurge on the good stuff if vanilla is the dominant focus of the recipe, but otherwise the imitation was fine, and you can’t tell the difference.

  10. They also noted that natural vanilla loses its flavor compounds when heated above 250 or 300 degrees, so synthetic is actually better for baking cookies or other things that get very hot. Most cakes don’t get an internal temp beyond 210, so natural is OK there. And for custards, creams, etc. natural won the day.

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