Reader Sasha writes in with this question:
Okay, this drives me crazy. Cook’s Illustrated swears by their panels of tasters that there is no discernible difference between imitation vanilla extract and genuine vanilla extract. And I just find that hard, if not impossible, to swallow, er, believe. I’ve also found there’s a huge difference in the taste of imitation vanilla’s. Sooo, is the extra dough worth it? And do brands matter re: the genuine article? I have a friend who swears by a Guatemalan brand. Oy, the humanity…
For those of you who might not know what Sasha is talking about, a few years ago, the editors of Cook’s Illustrated famously conducted a tasting of various vanillas (real beans, real extracts and imitation vanilla extracts) in a series of baking applications. The panel was composed — as it always is at Cook’s Illustrated — of noted chefs and/or pastry professionals, and their findings rocked the baking and pastry world. For they determined that not only was there no detectable difference between real and imitation vanilla in many types of preparations, but further that in some contexts it actually tasted more like vanilla than the real thing.
Where does imitation vanilla tend to work best? Usually in applications where there are a lot of strong, competing flavors, contexts where the subtleties of real vanilla bean would be lost amid the clutter. These include things like cookies, bars and brownies, where the unsubtle, some might even say cartoonish, character of imitation vanilla is best able to assert itself. Do I own any of the imitation stuff? Why yes I do, and I use it for just those occasions. I also have a bottle of real extract on hand for situations where I believe it matters (notably cake batters). I buy beans fresh, as I said, when I need them.
All that said, I’ve never given much thought to taste-testing imitation vanillas. I pretty much just buy the bottle of whatever’s handy, assuming the vanillin (the compound that gives imitation vanilla its vanilla-like flavor) will come through no matter what the flavor profile of the extract itself. But that’s just me. If anybody out there has any recommendations on brands of imitation vanilla for Sasha, please chime in.