As you ready your pantry for holiday baking, you've got a choice to make — splurge on fragrant, yet pricey pure vanilla extract, or stick with less expensive imitation vanilla extract.
Is there really a difference between the two? And is pure vanilla really worth its higher price tag?
Not All Vanilla Is Created Equal
The cost of vanilla extract can range from a few cents an ounce for the imitation variety, to just under a dollar per ounce for a pure grocery store brand, and up to a couple dollars an ounce for the really good stuff. Part of the reason good-quality pure vanilla fetches such a high price tag is that it's tricky to cultivate. You also get what you pay for — pure vanilla has much more depth of flavor.
Is Pure Vanilla Extract Worth the Price?
The answer is really up to you! While we love good-quality pure vanilla, in my opinion, the right choice mostly depends on what you're making. If you're making a dessert like pudding, custard, candy, or even a delicate cake, where the flavor of vanilla will stand out, go for the pricier pure vanilla extract. It's worth every penny, and will certainly make a difference in your dessert. On the other hand, if your dessert is getting baked or has bold flavors, you can probably get away with the imitation variety.
Our Experts Weight In
But don't just take it from me. I asked some of my favorite baking experts about when they insist on using pure vanilla extract, and if they think it's worth the price. It's a topic they all have strong opinions on, and one that they're passionate about.
Author of The Baking Bible, The Bread Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible, and many more
ALWAYS! I'd rather use nothing, as the taste of artificial vanilla varies from insipid to nasty. Pure vanilla not only has a delicious taste of its own; it also enhances other flavors.
Author of Pure Vanilla, Marshmallow Madness, and Real Sweet
Think of vanilla extract like olive oil. Keep a solid, reasonably priced supermarket brand on hand for everyday baking, and save the spendy, more robust vanilla products — like premium extracts, vanilla-bean paste, and whole vanilla beans — for recipes that are very vanilla-forward and can let your investment shine, like sugar cookies, vanilla cakes, pastry cream, and buttercream frosting.
Although imitation vanilla may contain a hint of vanillin, which is derived from vanilla beans, the majority of it is usually lignin, which is a wood pulp byproduct. Additionally, the flavor just isn't great, and tends to bake off in the oven, anyway.
Ordering online is the secret to getting great premium vanilla products at the best prices. Buy in bulk and store wisely, and you're set for months of flavorful baking.
Blogger at CakeSpy
Using imitation vanilla extract in your baked goods is like dousing yourself with the Chanel No. 5 knockoff you bought in Chinatown. Sure, it may have some of the right characteristics, but it's not the real thing. Pure vanilla gives your baked goods a fully infused, rich flavor with no weird chemical aftertaste. Yes, it's far more expensive, but it's worth it.
But to prove that I'm not uppity, I'll give you a compromise. If you must use the imitation stuff, limit its use to baked goods that have dominant, strong flavors (such as chocolate) that might overpower the vanilla; it will be less noticeable. For baked goods where the vanilla will really have a moment to shine, such as sugar cookies or a pound cake, always use the good stuff.
I'm the sort who'll spring for vanilla extract every time, but some people really prefer the taste of imitation vanilla (which is high in vanillin, a flavor that's very similar to the strongest notes in Tahitian vanilla) and I think that so long as people are happy with the taste, they should use what they like. My sister-in-law is crazy about imitation vanilla, and to her, a "white" cake doesn't taste right without it.
But if you're ready to put a particularly nice bottle of vanilla extract to good use, something from Nielsen-Massey for example, I think it's at its best in ice cream (where its alcohol content can help keep things creamy), any sort of buttercream or frosting, hot chocolate, and other recipes where there isn't really any extensive heat application that might degrade the flavor. Of course, it's great in cookies and cakes too, but especially when loaded with holiday spices, it's not always given a chance to shine.
When it comes to candies like peanut brittle or toffee, I think vanilla bean is a better choice because it doesn't contribute any excess liquid and the flavor isn't damaged in the high heat.
Pastry Chef and Owner of Flour Bakery and Cafe
Pure vanilla is absolutely worth the price. It adds a distinctive warm, round, sweet note to anything it is added to. Extract adds a hint of this, but the real thing instantly brings your baked goods and desserts to a much higher level. I don't ever think it should be optional, even though it's often listed as so.
Blogger at Baking Bites
I absolutely think that pure vanilla extract is worth the price. It has a wonderful, floral complexity to it that imitation vanilla products just don't have. I think that you can get away with using imitation vanilla in recipes where there are already a lot of other flavors and only a small quantity is required, like a spice cake or a batch of cookies loaded with lots of mix-ins. For recipes where vanilla is a prominent flavor, pure vanilla extract is the only way to go.
One of the reasons that vanilla is so expensive is that orchids that produce vanilla beans only grow in a few places around the world. They're difficult to grow, harvest, and transform into extract, which is why we end up paying a bit more for it. Fortunately, a little bit of real vanilla goes a long way, so a bottle is an excellent investment in the flavor of your baked goods.
Do you always use pure vanilla? Do you have a favorite kind?
(Image credits: Emily Han)