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The Best Vanilla
Cyclones, theft, petrochemicals, market swings—vanilla is anything but boring. We delve into this fascinating world and find the best products for your kitchen.
Our winning imitation vanilla, Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor, has been discontinued. In its place, we recommend McCormick Premium Vanilla Flavor.
What You Need To Know
Vanilla is the world's most popular flavor and fragrance. It comes in two forms: pure vanilla extract, which is derived from the seed pods of vanilla orchid vines, and synthetic vanilla, which is manufactured in a lab. Just 1 percent of the world's vanilla flavor is “real”; the rest is imitation.
We call for vanilla widely in our recipes. When we last evaluated it in 2009, a pure van...
Everything We Tested
Though it's an imitation, this product has other things in it besides vanillin to drum up some complexity flavor-wise (i.e., the “natural” and “artificial” flavors on its ingredient list). Tasters described it as “caramel-y” and “boozy,” with notes of cherry cola and tropical fruit. Despite its relatively high vanillin level, some found the primary vanilla notes to be “a touch weak,” “like cheap vanilla ice cream (but ice cream I'd be happy to eat after a breakup).”
This bold extract had its friends and its foes. First off, it was boozy. “Too much alcohol, not enough bean,” said one taster. Another disagreed: “Very expensive- and original-tasting, like pudding from a fancy restaurant.” A third was pragmatic: “At least you can't be plagued with those, ‘Wait! Did I remember to add the vanilla?’ doubts.” Described as buttery, pepperminty, bright, floral, rich, and slightly bitter, overall this “full-flavored” extract earned praise for an “elegant, interesting, and complex” flavor.
Baker's was the only imitation extract to use two different kinds of synthetic vanillin; it had the second-highest vanillin level, and tasters approved. “Good vanilla presence, lovely overall flavor,” said one. “Rich but not too powerful,” said another. Tasters noted some nuance with hints of coconut, oaked chardonnay, and a pleasantly bitter aftertaste, but overall comparisons were minimal: just “classic vanilla flavor here”; “some complexity, some depth, not trying too hard.”
This extract was “mellow,” with milder vanilla flavor but interesting nuance—“not very bold but some complexity here,” as one person put it. Tasters described it as slightly nutty, toasty, woodsy, oaky, and floral, with notes of anise, rose water, and subtle warm spices. “Tastes richer, more nuanced, almost smoky,” said one. Overall, it was complex and interesting but not the most vanilla-y vanilla out there.
This vanilla made sweeter frosting and pudding, but tasters liked the flavor, calling it “simple,” “approachable,” “straightforward,” and “well-balanced,” with “good homemade vibes.” There was some complexity—it was “a touch bitter in a good way” and “slightly floral,” with warmer notes of caramel and a “hint” of booziness, in the vein of rum and bourbon. In sum, it had a classic vanilla flavor with some additional complexity playing an appropriate supporting role.
This vanilla is called a “flavoring” instead of a “pure vanilla extract” even though it's made with real vanilla beans because the FDA mandates that pure vanilla extract be 35 percent alcohol. It uses glycerine (a lightly sweet, colorless, odorless, viscous liquid) as an extracting medium instead. Tasters said it was “faintly floral,” with notes of caramel; it was “not very complex but [had a] nice intensity of warm, sweet vanilla flavor.”
This pure extract was fruity, lingering, and evocative. Tasters compared its flavor to those of Valentine's Day heart candies, bananas, Fruity Pebbles, Laffy Taffy, bubble gum, cotton candy, animal crackers, and Yankee candles. Some tasters appreciated the robust combination of flavors: “I like this one—feels like something extra is going on.” Others wished for more classic vanilla flavor with less background noise: “Complex but not in a way I like,” said one taster.
Recommended with reservations
“Holy vanilla flavor!” said one taster trying this product in pudding. It wasn't complex but rather sang one note—VANILLA!—and sang it loudly. It has the most vanillin of any product we tried, and it likely uses a combination of pure vanilla extract and synthetic vanillin (which would fall under the “artificial flavors” on its ingredient list), although the company wouldn't confirm this. Some thought its smack-you-in-the-face flavor was a heady foil that balanced butter and sugar in desserts, others found it “fake,” like “vanilla invented in a lab.”
The classic vanilla flavor in this extract was “mild and delicate,” which makes sense since it had a lower vanillin level. But there was a lot of other stuff going on: Tasters picked out notes of caramel, rum, flowers, cherries, warm spices, and almonds. It certainly had nuance. Some found this complexity interesting, and others said it was “weird,” but almost everyone wished the classic vanilla notes were stronger.
Tasters described this extract as “subtle.” Some found it “pleasant and light,” but most thought it was a bit “bland.” It had the lowest vanillin level, and overall we preferred vanillas with more oomph; it made both pudding and frosting taste sweeter without bold vanilla flavor and extra complexity to balance things out. It was also boozy, which was divisive—some said it had a “nice sharpness,” while others found it “harsh.”
Reviews you can trust
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Hannah is an executive editor for ATK Reviews and cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube.
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Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!
Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.
Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!
John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.