Be it in buttercream frosting or luscious layer cake, we’ve all used vanilla extract at some point in our baking endeavors. And since the bottles come with a big price tag, we’ve even found thrifty ways to use every last drop. However, there may be one crucial mistake you’re making when picking up a bottle of vanilla from the store: buying imitation.
Imitation Vanilla vs. The Real Deal
Apart from price, there are several key differences between imitation and pure vanilla. To start, manufacturers can artificially create vanillin (the compound responsible for vanilla’s iconic scent and flavor) without an actual vanilla bean. While this alone might not give pause to some, bakers should take caution when using imitation vanilla as the flavor tends to bake away in the oven more easily than true vanilla. In fact, you may have to use twice as much imitation vanilla to get the same flavor as pure vanilla.
Editor’s tip: A good quality vanilla (like this one from Nielson Massey) will give you more bang for your buck.
How to Find Quality Vanilla at the Store
Luckily the FDA has strict laws for labeling vanilla. Here’s how to decode the vanilla you see in the baking aisle
- Pure vanilla extract: Any vanilla product that’s named “pure” contains vanillin that’s derived from real vanilla beans. However, read the label closely. Sugar or corn syrup can still be added to pure vanilla extract to bulk up the bottle.
- Imitation vanilla extract: Read closely for “imitation” on the label. The vanillin in this bottle could be derived from pine sap, clove or even wood pulp!
Editor’s tip: Here’s why vanilla prices likely won’t go down anytime soon.
The Bottom Line
If you’re making a recipe that contains vanilla—try to reach for the real thing. You’ll find that pure vanilla extract has much more flavor, and even enhances other flavors in your dish. Try it out and see the difference in these vanilla recipes that are anything but boring.