When to Use Pure Vanilla Extract or Imitation Vanilla in Your Desserts
Stroll through the baking aisle and you’ll notice several options when it comes to imitation vanilla flavor, pure vanilla extract, vanilla beans, vanilla paste, and beyond. It’s enough to make you want to ask, “Will the real vanilla please stand up?” There’s actually a reason why imitation vanilla flavor exists, and there are uses for all of the above. Read on to learn about what kinds of desserts can be made with each, including those that won’t taste much different with imitation vanilla flavor standing in for the pricier pure vanilla extract. (Psst ... some even end up better with imitation vanilla vs. vanilla extract!)
What Is Vanilla, Exactly?
Derived from an orchid plant, vanilla beans have been put to delicious use in recipes since the 17th century. It works as a natural flavor enhancer and helps amplify the flavors the vanilla is paired with, similar to salt. (You might notice chocolate cakes with vanilla taste even chocolate-ier.)
Imitation vanilla flavor is often on the supermarket shelf right next to pure vanilla extract and a few other options:
Pure vanilla extract must contain vanilla beans, water, and alcohol. Alcohol is used to “extract” the flavor out of the vanilla beans. Per the FDA’s definition of “vanilla extract,” it must contain at least 35% alcohol by volume and at least 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter. A small bottle of pure extract ($12, Target) will generally run you around $10 (or $5 to $6 per ounce) since expensive, real vanilla beans are fairly rare and are challenging to grow and harvest. Depending on the brand, this product may also contain a bit of sugar to keep the extract emulsified, which is A-OK with the FDA as long as it doesn’t impact the flavor. Pure extract works great in cakes, cookies, pies, and muffins, and even to tame the acidity of a savory recipe like marinara sauce.
Test Kitchen Tip: Want to make your own pure vanilla extract? All it takes is a vanilla bean pod or two and your choice of bourbon, vodka, rum, or brandy.
Pure vanilla bean pastes involve a combo of pure vanilla extract and real vanilla bean specks (those familiar tiny black dots you might recall in some higher-end ice cream). A small jar lasts a while, but it costs around $25 to $40. The thick, honey-like texture is nice to incorporate when you don’t want to thin out batters or frostings. Vanilla bean paste ($30, Sur la Table) is also a tasty trade for simple syrup in cocktail and mocktail recipes.
Vanilla beans are often grown in Madagascar, Tahiti, or Mexico and are typically about $2 to $3 each. These varieties can be used interchangeably in any recipe that calls for beans or vanilla seeds, but each country’s vanilla crop offers a slightly different flavor profile. Vanilla beans ($25, Williams Sonoma) are the most costly but also most pure form available. If you scrape out those specks, don’t toss the pods! Toss them in sugar or vodka to create infused sugars or vodka.
Imitation vanilla flavor (aka vanilla flavor) scores its vanilla-like flavor from vanillin, a naturally occurring chemical compound in real vanilla beans. That same vanillin flavor can be made without any real vanilla beans, so it's much more affordable (around $0.10 to $0.30 per ounce). Imitation vanilla ($1, Target) can have ingredients such as lignin, clove oil, pine bark, fermented bran, and several others. Many bakers swap this one-for-one for pure vanilla extract since it’s available at a fraction of the price.
When to Use Pure Vanilla Extract vs. Imitation Vanilla Flavor
Pure vanilla extracts, beans, and pastes can generally be used in similar quantities: 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract = 1 tablespoon vanilla paste = 1 vanilla bean.
Recipes generally specify when they require seeds or pastes, so we’re going to focus on imitation vanilla vs. pure vanilla extract for the rest of this discussion. Again, this swap is 1-for-1, but our Test Kitchen recommends imitation vanilla vs. vanilla extract only in certain situations.
In oven-baked goods, such as cakes and cookies, it's almost impossible to taste the difference between the flavor of items prepared with imitation vanilla or pure vanilla extract. Basically, for baked goods, imitation vanilla flavor will be fine.
In low-heat sweets, such as puddings, pastry creams, and icings, the taste difference is more noticeable. For best results, use pure vanilla extract (or paste) for no-bake treats, simmered sauces and custards, and frozen desserts.
Now that you’re well-versed in all things vanilla, all that’s left to do is pick out your next dessert recipe and get that apron ready!