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What is imitation vanilla?

Gold Medal Imitation Vanilla Extract

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.

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  • Macy
    August 13, 2013

    I’m so glad you posted this, because I always wondered the difference! I’ve been buying Imitation Vanilla recently, because of the price, and haven’t noticed a different with cookies and things! I’m glad you explained the difference! 🙂

  • Alrank
    August 14, 2013

    Thank you so much for so thoroughly detailing the differences. I never even considered the variations in vanilla (nor really knew about them), but this really helps! No wonder I have had such a hard time finding real vanilla beans at my local grocery store.
    Thank you again.

  • Jaynie Doughe
    December 19, 2013

    I have tried both but prefer the imitation. I like pure products best whenever possible but the odor of the pure is often too strong even after the goods are baked.

  • John
    December 21, 2013

    I just recently started making and using homemade double strength vanilla and now I can never go back to imitation flavored vanilla. That “odor” is an intoxicating aroma that I am now infusing into other things like my granulated sugar, honey, butter, olive oil. I was cutting up some vanilla beans last night and my fingers have the scent of vanilla, and now I can’t stop smelling my fingers. Here is my recipe for my Very Vanilla Honey Butter:

    1 teaspoon Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla “Paste” (the paste is the seeds inside the vanilla bean, four vanilla beans should yield about 1 teaspoon)
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1 tablespoon honey
    1 pound softened unsalted butter

    Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and whip with an electric mixer until the butter is light and fluffy. Serve over your favorite warm bread. This butter blend is so good you may just eat the butter without the bread.

  • G
    December 22, 2013

    Thank you really helpful

  • Sharon
    November 14, 2015

    I am so grateful to know the difference!!! And I can’t wait to make some Very Vanilla Honey Butter!! Sounds so good!

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