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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 vanilla won our blind taste tests. Since then, its price has skyrocketed. Pure vanilla extract from McCormick, one of the most well-known brands, costs 33 percent more now than it did back then. Meanwhile, the price of imitation vanilla extract has remained steady.
In the last decade, food Goliaths such as Unilever and Nestlé have moved toward using more “natural” ingredients, which has led to an increase in demand for pure extract. In 2017, a cyclone wiped out 30 percent of the vanilla crop on Madagascar, the island that produces 80 percent of the world's vanilla beans. Both factors have contributed to the price hike.
So how does all this affect the vanilla we buy at the supermarket? To find out, we rounded up 10 of the top-selling products in the country—seven pure extracts and three imitation extracts priced from $0.12 to $6.19 an ounce. We tasted all the products uncooked in pudding and frosting and then pitted the top-rated pure extract against the top-rated imitation extract in cake and cookies. But first, we had to understand the differences between the two styles.
How Vanilla Products Are Made
A labor-intensive crop, vanilla orchids are both hand-pollinated and hand-picked, mostly on small farms. After harvesting, the beans are cured. First, they're blanched or wilted to kill yeasts and fungi, which prevent rot. This can be done in the sun, in an oven, in hot water, or in a freezer. Next, in a process known as sweating, the beans are wrapped in cloth and put in hot boxes to help develop flavor. The beans are then dried over the course of several weeks and later conditioned, or kept in closed boxes for several months, to fully mature their flavor. Vanilla extract is made by soaking the beans in liquid, typically a mixture of alcohol and water.
Conversely, the faux stuff is flavored primarily with synthesized vanillin, the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans. More than 15,000 tons of pure vanillin are industrially manufactured each year using a chemical process that starts with a substance called guaiacol. Guaiacol can be manufactured from components of clove oil, wood pulp, or other sources, but most of the world's supply is derived from petroleum. According to Matt Hartings, associate professor of chemistry at American University, the...
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.”
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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.