Good Vanillin, Bad Vanillin

It’s worth noting that the original Cook’s Illustrated article on imitation vanilla drew a distinction between high and low quality imitation vanilla, and stressed that you should go for the good stuff. But that raises the question: what’s the difference? Primarily, in the types of vanillin the extract includes.

There are types? Yes, there are. For there are several chemical routes to vanillin from the source material of guaiacol. The easier and less expensive of these routes produces a molecule called methyl vanillin, while the more involved and expensive one produces a molecule called ethyl vanillin. You might have guessed already that ethyl vanillin is the stuff you want, for indeed it gives you a more pronounced vanilla flavor.

16 thoughts on “Good Vanillin, Bad Vanillin”

  1. ethyl, methyl, tekel, upharsin …

    Do the labels general say what type it is? (Silly question of course.) Or are you going to make suggestions? I’m not sure I can bring myself to buy vanillan, but if I do at least I can get the right one.

    Still would like to hear about vodka!

    1. Hey Chana!

      In fact most imitation vanilla labels do tell you what’s inside. You may need a magnifying glass, but it’s normally there. I’ll look into the vodka thing!

      – Joe

  2. I’ve noticed all the focus on vanilla on your blog of late. I find the best middle of the road compromise is to use bean paste. It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing without the expense, work, and mess involved with actual beans. In this neck of the woods, we have synthetic Foster Clark’s (yech!), Taylor & Colledge paste, and the real thing, which more often than not is grown in Indonesia or Uganda and does absolutely nothing other than fill your custards / cakes with nice specks that fool you and your guests into believing that you’ve splashed out heh heh 😉

    1. I’ve gone that route, OB, and I do find that paste is useful for those “judgement calls” I mentioned. I generally buy it when I find some at a reasonable price. It can be awfully expensive as well!


      – Joe

  3. Thanks, Joe. In the small quantities use, I’m not concerned with the cost of real vanilla extract, and I tend to receive various varieties in gift baskets anyway (with four or five such bottles in the cupboard now). But I will try the ethyl vanillin to see if I prefer the results in baked goods.

    BTW, the cheap store-brand vanillin I currently have lists ethyl vanillin last on a seven ingredient label, with unidentified (presumably methyl) vanillin third. I’ll look for some that places the ethyl variety up higher.

    I’ve always held a sniffish attitude towards imitation extract, but if I end up shattering a long-held bad assumption, so much the better. And another great piece of info I’ll have picked up from your excellent blog.

    1. Ha! Thanks very much, Tom! Good luck finding some fake stuff that suits you! 😉

      – Joe

    1. Check the labels, Deb! They’ll usually tell you what type is inside.

      – Joe

  4. But how to know! “Vainillina” says the label on my Negrita-bottle under “Ingredientes”. Do other brands actually print ethyl oder methyl on their labels?

    (I buy my Negrita-bottles at the international supermarket here, since vanilla-essence is not available at all in Vienna. Only real vanilla-pods or vanilla-sugar for baking. The latter is commonly used to substitute parts of the sugar in a recipe. “1 Sachet of Vanilla-Sugar” is part of almost any local baking recipe)

    1. Hi Thomas!

      It depends on where it’s made, but most of the time the ingredients are listed. The imitation vanilla I buy at my local supermarket is from Mexico, so the label is in Spanish, but it still provides a full breakdown that’s not so hard to understand. 😉


      – Joe

  5. I’m a professional baker. I had to use vanillin in a cookie recipe one day because we were out of the “good” stuff. Customers preferred the cookie make w/ vanillin. It did taste better. We don’t use it in custards or buttercream, but we now use it in all cookies because the flavor is better.

    1. Isn’t that funny, Cathy? I was stunned when that happened to me. It must be something about simple, unapologetic directness of vanillin. It makes an impression on people. Thanks for the note!

      – Joe

  6. I tend to get a migraine from some vanillin, maybe it’s that methyl one then… or both and I get the headache only sometimes. That’s why I have to use only the real thing.

    1. Interesting. I know migraines have a lot of triggers (Mrs. Pastry has them). Vanillin may be one of yours. But I’d be curious to know if one form or another helps or hurts.

      – Joe

  7. Like a previous commenter, I could only find one brand (“Baker’s,” McCormick’s imitation) that listed ethyl vanillin when I went grocery shopping yesterday.

    I looked at two brands’ imitations: McCormick and Watkins.

    McCormick’s “pure imitation premium vanilla” and “pure clear imitation vanilla” listed vanillin and “and other artificial flavorings” (among other things, like water and alcohol). Watkins’ “imitation clear vanilla” listed water, glucose syrup, propylene glycol, alcohol (8.75%), and “artificial flavorings.”

    But no ethyl vanillin. Weird.

    So, like I said, I bought the only brand that did list it, the 98-cent “Baker’s” imitation vanilla. It’s in there, so I’m hoping it’ll work out fine? If not, that’s ok — especially since it was less than a dollar…LOL.

    1. Let me know what you think, Andrew!

      If ingredients aren’t listed you can probably let price be your guide to some extent. The very cheapest will probably be the ones made the most cheaply. I’d guess. 😉

      – Joe

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