Yes, yes it’s true that I do indeed use imitation vanilla more often than any other type of vanilla. Why? Well, many of you out there may remember about eight years ago when Cooks Illustrated released the results of a blind taste test in which a panel of bakers and pastry chefs picked imitation vanilla over real vanilla as being more vanilla-y in applications like cookies and cakes. I was amused by that but never really believed it until one fateful month when my revenues were down and I couldn’t quite rationalize another $120 jug of real vanilla emulsion. I felt guilty, but I ordered a $29 jug of imitation vanilla instead and put some of it in my doughnuts.
Wouldn’t you know that it was not two days later that one of my regular customers came up to me and said “So! You’re finally using real vanilla in your recipes!” She said she could taste the real vanilla flavor even under the icing and sprinkles. And she wasn’t the only one. Three or four others, though they didn’t pick out the vanilla flavor per se, commented that they liked my improvement to the recipe.
I’ve been an imitation vanilla devotee ever since. In the context of a cookie dough or cake batter the simple flavor works, and works well. Like a mediocre trombonist in a marching band, it does great in an ensemble. But just like I wouldn’t hire that same player to perform a solo, I wouldn’t use imitation vanilla in something like a crème brûlée. In that case I’d want real vanilla bean.
Reader Jean asks: do I not keep any real vanilla extract in my cupboard? Indeed I do, for judgement calls like, oh say, tuiles, which only have a few ingredients (remember Joe’s Inverse Law of Ingredient Dynamics: as the number of ingredients in a recipe goes down, the quality of those ingredients must go up).
Real vanilla’s blessing — and curse — is that it is complex and delicate, as I mentioned last week. It has far more “notes” in it than imitation vanilla, to use another musical analogy. Imitation vanilla is like an elementary chord: maybe a root and a fifth. Real vanilla brings many more notes to the party: the third, seventh and ninth (major or minor depending on the cultivar). The trouble is that you pay dearly for those extra overtones, and they’re the first to go when real vanilla is exposed to heat for very long.
So I say: embrace the bean, but only when it makes sense. Otherwise you’re just burnin’ flavor, literally. And at no small expense.