Is Pure Vanilla Extract The Best? We Found Out
Years ago Cook’s Illustrated did a tasting of vanilla extracts and caused quite a stir when they stated that an imitation vanilla came out equal to pure vanilla extract in certain applications. I was intrigued and curious – OK, skeptical – and had to find out for myself, and for you. Sure, imitation is far cheaper, and for some price is a driving factor, but I wanted to assess these extracts purely on taste performance in desserts and baked goods.
First a description of each item:
Pure Vanilla Extract – vanilla extract is made from the vanilla bean pod, which is part of the Vanilla planifolia plant, a variety of orchid. The pods are soaked in alcohol, which “extracts” the flavor. The brown color occurs naturally as a by-product of the essential oils in the bean. The federal guideline for alcohol content for pure vanilla extract is a minimum of 35%, so you will see this amount listed, and higher. We use Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extractin our Test Kitchen. They use a cold extraction process, while some manufacturers use heat. This method preserves more of the aromatic compounds inherent in vanilla. (Nielson-Massey products boast over 300 distinctive flavor compounds, while the Cook’s Illustrated review mentions a typical amount is 250).
Imitation Vanilla Extract – the “vanilla” flavor in imitation extract is derived from vanillin, which can be natural sourced or artificially created. A bit confusing, yes, but here are the details. Vanillin is a naturally occurring chemical compound found within the vanilla bean and gives vanilla its unique taste and fragrance. When vanilla beans are made into pure vanilla extract, the vanillin compounds are released and help create vanilla’s “flavor”. But vanillin can be created without a vanilla bean in sight, and much more inexpensively. It can be synthesized from clove oil, pine sap and even from wood pulp, a by-product of the paper industry. Clear vanilla, by the way, is always an imitation or artificial vanilla product. Perusing labels proves interesting. The McCormick Premium Imitation Vanilla Extract read as follows: Water, Alcohol (26%), Natural Flavorings (Including Extractives Of Cocoa And Extractives Of Tea), Vanillin And Other Artificial Flavorings, Corn Syrup, And Caramel Color. Cocoa and tea? Who knew.
But back to our test. Vanilla’s abundant aromatic and flavor compounds make it actually a complex flavor, but many of these compounds are dissipated when exposed to heat. We took a cue from the Cook’s Illustrated testing and made a vanilla pudding, where the extracts were adding after the pudding came off of the heat, and then also in a very plain sugar cookie, where the extracts were exposed to heat. We wanted to assess the difference.
We made a batch of vanilla pudding and a batch of sugar cookies in the Test kitchen, split the batches in half (so that everything else would be exactly the same) and then flavored half the batch of pudding and half of the cookie dough with Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Extract and the other halves with McCormick Premium Imitation Vanilla Extract. The cookies were baked on the same sheet and the same time to eliminate as many other factors as possible.
We had 14 “testers”. They ranged from avid home bakers, to chemical engineers, a couple of European palates, to folks that just like pudding and cookies. 9 were women and 5 were men. Ages ranged from 13 to 70. The testers knew that they were comparing pure vanilla extract and imitation, but they did not know which product was in which dessert. We made a point of telling testers that there was no right or wrong answer – we were simply interested in their experience.
Here are some quotes:
Cookies with Pure Extract: “Is this the one with the pure extract?”; “tastes good to me but nothing outstanding”; “my favorite because it has a richer vanilla flavor; it’s vanilla, distinctly, especially with the aftertaste…it’s a creamy vanilla. It tastes ‘higher end’”; “the after-taste in the cookies is where it really hit me. I liked this better”; “this one tastes creamier to me, maybe more buttery? I like this one better.”
Cookies with Imitation Extract: “tastes like sugar cookies should”; “wow these taste vanilla-y”; “I like these best; they are more subtle”; “you can definitely tell it’s vanilla but it is flat. There isn’t as much depth. You take a bit and go, Oh vanilla, yeah, okay”.
And then we had one person who said they couldn’t tell a difference with the cookies.
Pudding with Pure Extract: “pure vanilla flavor”; “nuanced”; “just very clean tasting”; “the pudding isn’t white; it looks colored from the vanilla”; “distinct overtones of vanilla. I would eat this all day long. You get vanilla right away, then there is a great vanilla finish – a dark vanilla spice on the finish”; “oh huge difference! This one tastes more refined”; “I get more vanilla flavor with this one; and it is more interesting”; “I don’t know, it tastes more creamy; more classic. Like what I think pastry cream should taste like”; it’s boozy; I don’t like the aftertaste”.
Pudding with Imitation Extract: “alcoholy”; “medicinal”; “weird”; “I taste flavors other than vanilla”; “blech!”; “much more subtle, almost to the point of not tasting it at first. In the beginning I am more aware of the pudding texture, then I get a bit of the vanilla profile in the middle”; it’s a straight ahead vanilla flavor – not strong”; “I get a strong vanilla flavor, but it is a fake vanilla flavor”; “I prefer this one; it has a lighter vanilla taste”; “whoa! They taste like different desserts; I prefer this one because it is more subtle”.
Conclusion: Neither extract was a clear “winner”. The pure extract seemed to be more pronounced in the pudding and there was some discussion as to whether the testers who chose the imitation in the pudding might have chosen the pure if less of it had been used. We had used the same amount of both extracts and we all agreed that less of the pure could have been used. Obviously neither extract came out clearly on top in either application. We had a small test group, so statistics might have changed if we had used 100 people. We will continue to use the pure vanilla in our Test Kitchen as we find it to be the most useful and flavorful overall. If price is a big issue for you, or you mostly/only use vanilla in baked items, then certainly consider the imitation. Or, stage a taste testing of your own and let us know the results!
Image: Peter Muka