In the race for the “right” vanilla flavor you need to balance flavor with the cost. Do you go (maybe invest is a better word?) for the real stuff or is imitation okay? What’s the difference? What’s the tradeoff? Is there a time when you’d want to use one vs. The other? Well, here’s the stuff you need to know.
Real Vanilla Extract
Real vanilla extract is derived from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid plant that grows in tropical climates. It’s hard to grow artificially. The reason it’s so hard to grow artificially has to do with the pollination methods. Vanilla basically needs to be hand-pollinated. Time-consuming and labor-intensive for sure. But it doesn’t take a lot to add a lot of flavor, so it’s not really as costly as it seems. But I don’t think you’d ever call real vanilla extract inexpensive.
Price-wise, it can vary…from a little under $1/ounce to a few dollars per ounce. Nope, it ain’t cheap. I think of it in that group along with truffles or saffron.
True vanilla has that vanilla bean flavor because of a chemical component called "vanillin". But it also has a lot of other flavor components that give it a much more complex flavor profile. It’s not unusual for real vanilla to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 250-300 detectable flavor compounds!
The extraction process basically soaks the vanilla bean pods in alcohol. Some extraction processes use heat, while other use a cold extraction process. The cold extraction preserves more of the aromatic compounds inherent in vanilla. It may not surprise you to hear that tasters often detect a level of “booziness” in real vanilla. Why? Real vanilla extract is required by law to contain at least 35% alcohol. No surprise then that you can note that level of alcohol.
Imitation Vanilla Extract
In comparison, artificial vanilla is made with pure vanillin that has been diluted with water and alcohol. It's extracted from coal tar or wood pulp as a by-product of paper production. Now I know it sounds a little gross, but chemically this vanillin is identical to that found in real vanilla. The source from which it’s extracted makes it very inexpensive to mass produce. It does, however, lack most of those other flavor compounds that give real vanilla it’s more rounded flavor complexity.
How do they stack up?
Interesting fact: Vanilla experts have a (simple) way to strip away competing flavors so they can taste the extracts themselves. How? They mix them in milk (an 8:1 ratio of milk to vanilla). And when tasted this way, testers say real vanilla extracts are clearly superior.
But for most of us regular people using imitation vanilla in cooked items like cookies or cakes you really won’t be able to detect much if any difference. When cooked, much of the subtle differences between the flavors pretty much goes away.
In other uses that include more moderate or no heat (think eggnog) or cold desserts (like panna cotta and pudding), the taste profile of the real vanilla stands out much more.
So, Which is Better?
Honestly I don't think you can say one is "better" than the other. They are just different. Yes, the real is a more natural, more complexly-flavored product. But the artificial vanilla has some great uses, great flavor, and saves a few bucks along the way. It really depends on what you are using it for. If it’s a cooked recipe or one in which there are a lot of other flavors, either one will do (so maybe go imitation. It’s so much cheaper). If your recipe includes limited exposure to heat and/or the vanilla taste is supposed to be front-and-center, real vanilla may be the way to go since it will result in a more natural (maybe even slightly “boozy”), complex flavor.
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