I use real vanilla extract and real vanilla beans when I’m baking – and I generally use a lot, because not only do I love the flavor of vanilla, but I love how it interacts with other flavors. A couple of years ago, an issue of Cook’s Illustrated (March 2009) conducted a taste test of vanilla extract and found that imitation vanilla can be just as good – if not better than – regular vanilla extract in some recipes. This is because “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 [very] slight flavor advantage in the cake—but [high-ranking imitation soared to first place] in the cookies.”
CF Sauer Co.’s Gold Medal Imitation Vanilla was the test kitchen’s top imitation vanilla and I kept an eye out for it ever since I read that article so I could give it a try and see how it performed for myself. When you open the bottle, it has a very clear, bold vanilla flavor with none of the alcohol notes of vanilla extract. I could definitely smell a strong vanilla flavor in my batters (tested cake and a few cookie recipes) even during mixing. The vanilla held up well to baking and the flavor came through after baking, with a more pronounced vanilla flavor than vanilla extract typically does in these baked good recipes – and there was no hint that it wasn’t “real” vanilla extract.
The test kitchen also liked the fact that this imitation vanilla was significantly less expensive than most other vanilla extracts. In puddings and custards, real vanilla was still the champion of the taste test, but most of us bake cakes, muffins or whip up batches of cookies more often and use up our vanilla in those recipes. Imitation vanilla, and certainly this Gold Medal Imitation Vanilla, really does stand up to the task when it comes to baked goods and switching to a good quality imitation in those recipes can get you just as good a result and save you a few bucks along the way. That said, if you want to stick with the real thing (and I know I will in the long run) and really go through your vanilla quickly, you’ll want to do what I do and stock up on vanilla extract at wholesale stores where you can get huge bottles of it at very good prices.