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This easy-to-use, flavorful mixture adds bold flavor and pleasant specks of vanilla to desserts. Why, how, and when should you use it, and which one is best?
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What You Need To Know
While extract, pure or imitation, is one of the most common and convenient ways to add vanilla flavor to recipes, it's not the only option. Dark and thick, vanilla paste is as easy to use as extract is (you simply scoop or pour what you need from the jar). In addition to vanilla flavor, vanilla paste adds appealing flecks to desserts. You can also get flecks from whole vanilla beans, but paste lasts longer and is cheaper than beans. Ground vanilla (read about ground vanilla and vanilla powder here) will also add flecks, but it's more expensive than vanilla paste. The aim of this tasting was twofold: to find out how to use vanilla paste as a substitute for liquid vanilla extract and which brand of vanilla paste is best.
What It Is: A thick, scoopable mixture of vanilla extract; ground vanilla beans; sugar; and a thickener such as xanthan gum, gum tragacanth, or carrageenan
What It Costs: Up to $5.00 per ounce
Why You Use It: You get flecks like when you use a vanilla pod, but it's cheaper (roughly $3.00 per tablespoon versus $8.00) and lasts longer. It lasts indefinitely when stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
How to Use It: Stir it in with the wet ingredients when making cookie, cake, and brownie batters. Do not use it if you're avoiding alcohol or don’t want flecks of vanilla in your dessert.
Vanilla Extract Equivalency: 1 to 1
Our Winner: Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Bean Paste
Tasting Notes: “Vibrant” and “strong,” with a “hint of nuttiness”
Everything We Tested
Our favorite vanilla paste struck the right flavor balance between mild and overpowering; tasters described it as “vibrant” and “strong,” with a “hint of nuttiness.” Cookies made with it were “pleasant” and tasted “like gourmet store-bought ones.” In pudding, this paste imparted a “very full, custardy vanilla flavor.” Tasters also liked the visible flecks of vanilla scattered throughout both desserts.
This vanilla paste was “pleasant” and “not overwhelmingly sweet, just about right.” A few tasters noted that it was “mild,” with “not a lot of vanilla” flavor as compared with the other samples. Tasters said cookies made with this paste had “balanced, buttery vanilla flavor.”
“Wow, this one kind of smacks me across the face with vanilla” wrote one taster, and many other tasters agreed. Pudding made with this paste had an “almost a medicinal amount of vanilla,” which was too much for some. Others, though, liked the “warm,” “familiar,” “sweet,” “distinctly vanilla flavor.” This “vanilla lasts on the tongue,” wrote one taster.
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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.
Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.