Is real vanilla worth the extra cost?
As prices are rising on everything, many of us are looking for ways to save money. If you're a baker, you're likely evaluating cheaper brands and substitutions for ingredients. In our first installment of our Frugal Fridays series, we're looking at the two distinct ways to add vanilla flavor to baked and non-baked goods. You may be surprised to learn that most people (including professionals) think artificial vanilla tastes better than the real stuff - and can save you a bunch if you bake a lot.
Artificial vanilla is made from synthesized vanillin, which is the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans. More than 15,000 tons of pure vanillin are manufactured from substances including wood pulp and clove oil, but the majority of the world's supply of vanillin is derived from petroleum. While you may find this frightening, many household items - including aspirin - are made using petroleum products. A small quantity of vanillin is diluted in alcohol or propylene glycol, and caramel coloring and sometimes cocoa or tea extracts are added for complexity of flavor.
- Bolder vanilla flavor
- Cheaper, as little as $0.18 per ounce
- Can be as good or better tasting than pure vanilla extract
- Less complex flavor than pure vanilla
- Derived from crude oil
Pure Vanilla Extract
Pure vanilla is made from the seed pods of vanilla orchids, originally cultivated in pre-Columbian Mexico. Vanilla is now grown in tropical climates in many places in the world, each with a slightly different flavor profile. The process is very labor intensive: the orchids must be hand-pollinated, then harvested, blanched, cured, sweated then dried for months to achieve the best flavor. When they are ready, the beans are soaked in liquid (usually alcohol and/or water) to make the extract.
- Plant based
- Supports small farmers
- More complex flavor, with notes of other things like oak or flowers
- Milder vanilla flavor
- Is made with alcohol and can impart a boozy flavor
- More expensive than artificial vanilla, from $3 to $10 per ounce
America's Test Kitchen Taste Test winners*
Best Overall, Baker's Imitation Vanilla Flavor. We found at a local Walmart store for $1.46 for an 8-ounce bottle ($0.18 per ounce).
Runner-Up, Simply Organic Vanilla Extract. We found a 4-ounce bottle for $15.19 at our local grocer ($3.80 per ounce).
*There are lots of brands out there of both types, so we are relying on a blind taste test done a few years ago by America's Test Kitchen for our brand recommendations. Click here to read their article.
We've never used artificial vanilla in our recipes, mostly because we shy away from artificial ingredients. We mostly purchase Costco's Kirkland Brand vanilla extract, but started making our own using mid-priced beans and cheap vodka in 2019 during a vanilla bean shortage and price surge.
However, we bought some Baker's Imitation vanilla and we're going to give it a try. After all, we might like it better, too! And we think it's worth a shot when a nice size bottle costs only a buck-and-a-half.