In spite of the fact that the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen has assured us that imitation vanilla extract is at least as good as the real thin in most baked goods, I still use real vanilla extract the majority of the time. My favorite vanilla extract is Sonoma Syrup Co.’s Vanilla Bean Extract Crush because, in addition to being a very high quality extract, it offers a little something extra: crushed vanilla beans in the extract. The vanilla beans ensure that everything you baked with the extract will have little flecks of vanilla in it. It makes cakes, frostings, pudings, etc. look beautiful without having to do the extra work prepping fresh vanilla beans. Plus, it’s less expensive to use than sticking with whole beans every time because the bottles are quite large and last for a long time.
If you’re so inclined to make your own vanilla extract, you should be able to achieve the same effect by scraping vanilla beans into your mixture. And you can make the Sonoma bottle go a long way after it has been emptied by pouring any other brand of vanilla in to catch any left-behind vanilla specks.