What Is Clear Vanilla Extract?

And how does it compare with standard vanilla extract?

Clear vanilla extract is a type of imitation vanilla extract often used by professional bakers to keep cakes, puddings, meringues, and icings bright white in color.

While scientists have determined that there are about 250 flavor and aroma compounds in real vanilla, imitation vanilla is built around vanilla's single most potent component, vanillin. In the test kitchen, we've found that imitation vanilla (which is much cheaper than the real McCoy) is a good substitute for real vanilla extract in baked applications, as the heat of the oven destroys a good bit of real vanilla's complexity; we prefer real vanilla for recipes where the vanilla isn't cooked.

To see how clear imitation vanilla extract measures up, we ordered our winning real vanilla, McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract; our winning imitation vanilla; and the most widely available brand of clear vanilla, McCormick Vanilla Flavor–Clear (which is slightly more expensive than brown imitation vanillas but costs less than pure vanilla extract). We made batches of our Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, Classic Vanilla Pudding, and White Layer Cake with each of the three vanillas. In the cookies, the test was a draw, with most tasters unable to pick out a difference in flavor.

In both the cakes and the puddings, there was a small visual difference, with the clear vanilla making for more starkly white products. In the puddings, where the extract is never cooked, there were significant flavor differences. Most tasters preferred the version containing real vanilla for its more “complex,” “strongly vanilla” flavor as opposed to the “artificial” flavor from the clear imitation extract.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If aesthetics are a priority for your dessert, clear imitation vanilla extract can be a good option, especially in baked applications where its flavor would be less discernible from that of pure vanilla.

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