In 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.