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Is Imitation Vanilla Better Than the Pure Stuff? 

The answer may surprise you.
By and

Published Dec. 9, 2022.

Producing pure vanilla extract is so complicated and labor intensive that there’s no way to produce enough vanilla flavor and aroma to satisfy the world’s hunger for it without synthesizing it in a lab. (For more on that, check out the latest episode of my YouTube series What’s Eating Dan?.)

And that’s why more than 15,000 tons of pure vanillin, the main component of vanilla, are industrially manufactured each year. Vanillin is created through a chemical process that starts with an organic compound called guaiacol that is manufactured from either petroleum or wood. Vanillin can be manufactured from that guaiacol or from clove oil, wood pulp, or other sources.

But does the artificially created stuff even taste like the real deal? 

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Can You Really Taste the Difference Between Pure and Imitation Vanilla Extract?

To find out how perceptible the difference between pure and imitation vanilla extract is, we conducted a simple experiment.

We baked two batches of a simple icebox cookie flavored with vanilla. For one batch we used pure vanilla extract, and for the other we used imitation vanilla. 

My team blindfolded me and handed me two cookies. They could have both been pure extract, both imitation, or one of each. They turned out to be . . . really good. But I found one to have more vanilla flavor than the other and preferred it. 

And the more vanilla-y one? Imitation. 

When to Use Imitation Vanilla Extract 

So here’s the deal: During processing, vanilla beans develop hundreds of aroma compounds, making the vanilla experience incredibly rich and nuanced. But the compound vanillin is the primary one and it’s what we recognize immediately as vanilla flavor. 

Pure vanilla extract captures the full complexity, while imitation vanilla is largely just a big hit of pure vanillin. 

When you heat either product, as we do during baking, we drive off lots of volatile aromas. That’s why the kitchen smells great when you bake these cookies. But during that process, we largely lose the nuance of the real deal. And so the big punch of vanillin in the imitation stuff wins the day. 

The bottom line? For baking, don’t be afraid to reach for the imitation vanilla extract.

When to Use Pure Vanilla Extract  

If you have a bottle of pure vanilla extract, it’s best to reserve it for purposes in which the vanilla can be added off heat. For example, use it in my favorite vehicle for vanilla flavor: pastry cream.

While I’d happily eat vanilla pastry cream by the spoonful, it’s even better as the filling for choux au craquelin. This recipe by my colleague Andrea Geary features a cookie crunch outside, light as air puff, and rich whipped cream–lightened pastry cream. They look incredibly impressive but are totally achievable.

Want to learn more about the production of vanilla and the best way to eat it? Check out the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.


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