Everything You Need to Know About Imitation vs. Pure Vanilla Extract

If you're confused about when to use pure vanilla extract vs. imitation vanilla, don't worry. We've got your answers here.

Stroll through the supermarket baking aisle, and when it comes to vanilla, you'll notice a number of options. There's 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 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 ones that won't taste much different, whether you use imitation vanilla flavor or the pricier pure vanilla extract.

vanilla bean with spoon
Andy Lyons

What Is Vanilla, Exactly?

Derived from an orchid plant, vanilla beans have been put to use in recipes since the 17th century. It works as a natural flavor enhancer and helps amplify the flavors it's paired with, somewhat like salt. (You might notice chocolate cakes with vanilla taste even chocolatier.)

Imitation vanilla flavor is often on the supermarket shelf right next to pure vanilla extract, as well as a few other options.

Pure vanilla extract must contain vanilla beans, water, and alcohol. Alcohol is used to "extract" the flavor from the vanilla beans. Per the FDA's definition of "vanilla extract," it must contain at least 35 percent alcohol by volume and at least 100 grams of vanilla bean per liter. A small bottle of pure extract will generally run you between $5 and $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 well in cakes, cookies, pies, and muffins, and even as a way 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 combination of pure vanilla extract and specks of real vanilla beans (those tiny black dots you see in some higher-end ice creams). 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 is also a tasty swap for simple syrup in cocktail and mocktail recipes.

Vanilla beans are primarily 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 are the most costly, but they're the purest form available. If you scrape out those specks, don't toss the pods! Toss them in sugar or vodka to create infusions.

Imitation vanilla flavor (or vanilla flavor) gets its vanilla-like flavor from vanillin, a naturally occurring chemical compound in real vanilla beans. 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 contain ingredients such as lignin, clove oil, pine bark, fermented bran, and more. Many bakers use this rather than 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. One tablespoon of pure vanilla extract equals one tablespoon of vanilla paste, which equals one 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 one-for-one, 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 vs. pure vanilla extract. Basically, for baked goods, imitation vanilla flavor will be just fine.

In low-heat sweets, such as puddings, pastry creams, and icings, the taste difference is more noticeable. For the best results, use pure vanilla extract (or paste) for no-bake treatsor 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.

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