Cyclones, theft, petrochemicals, market swings—vanilla is anything but boring. We delve into this fascinating world and find the best products for your kitchen.
Published Jan. 1, 2019. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Seafood Two Ways
Our winning imitation vanilla, Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor, has been discontinued. In its place, we recommend McCormick Premium Vanilla Flavor.
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.
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...
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Hannah is an executive editor for ATK Reviews and cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube.