Vanilla is a staple ingredient for bakers and I use it in almost every one of my recipes. Vanilla beans are the most expensive form of vanilla and are a popular choice when making ice creams and custards, where you really want to see the seeds from the vanilla pods. Vanilla extract is the most commonly used form of vanilla and it is an alcohol solution that is infused with vanilla beans. Vanillin is an organic compound that is responsible for the vanilla flavor of vanilla beans, and that is what flavors the extract. Vanilla extract can also be fairly expensive, but at most markets you will also see imitation vanilla extract on shelves as a significantly less expensive alternative to real vanilla extract.
Imitation vanilla extract is a flavoring that is produced with synthetic vanillin, the same compound that is naturally found in vanilla beans. Most imitation products have a strong vanilla scent and contain high levels of vanillin, since it is very inexpensive to produce in a lab, while real vanilla beans are one of the most expensive crops in the world to produce. It can be substituted directly for vanilla extract in recipes.
Imitation vanilla will definitely add a vanilla flavor to anything you’re baking because it is introducing vanillin. That said, even though vanillin is the main flavoring agent in vanilla beans, it doesn’t mean that imitation vanilla is going to reproduce that same soft, floral flavor of real vanilla beans or vanilla extract because vanillin alone isn’t the only flavor-enhancing chemical that you’ll find in real vanilla. The imitation vanilla will get the job done if you are on a budget and it is especially useful in recipes where vanilla isn’t the star of the show. You can save the “good stuff” for splurging on recipes like Vanilla Bean Pound Cake and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream where you want the best vanilla flavor possible.