Imitation Vanilla???!!!

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.

24 thoughts on “Imitation Vanilla???!!!”

  1. Heh. Good for you. I, too, use the fake stuff – a Mexican version of the fake stuff – in baked goods, and when I sent some sablés to a rather well-known baker in New York, she complimented me on the vanilla flavor.

    I didn’t bother to tell her that I wasn’t using the pricey Madagascar stuff that everyone thinks is the end all/be all for vanilla.

  2. Are we going to get a “make your own vanilla extract” post? After a couple of attempts, I realized that the type of vodka I used was almost as important (if not more important) than the vanilla beans. So I think it’s time for you to talk about vodka!

    1. Hmmm….I dunno. The one time I tried to make my own extract it had nowhere near the flavor of a commercial extract, which is the reason I like them. So I dunno…I made need some coaxing there! 😉

      – Joe

      1. Oh do! Vodka is extremely useful for extracting all kinds of flavors. I use it to make limoncello, vanilla extract and nocino from the green walnuts from my backyard tree. I’ve even made apple and peach schnapps from it. And then there’s chocolate vodka which is yummy even if you’re not, as I am not, particularly into drinking it.

        You can make even more efficient extractions from Everclear or grain alcohol, of course, but that stuff is so aggressive and nasty I’m happy with the less intensely flavored things I can make from vodka.

        Perhaps you’ll clear up something that’s confounded me. I’ve read that there’s little point in wasting expensive vodka on these things but I’ve also read that some vodkas are more expensive because they’ve had more impurities filtered away. That’s supposed to make them “smoother” and eliminate the actual causes of bad reactions and hangovers (like how much vanilla extract can you actually drink?!)

        In any case, the follow up to these reports is that you can filter cheaper vodka and improve it’s qualities. I have a Brita filter I reserve specifically for this. …but then there’s that $40 vat of Grey Goose at Costco too.

        I’d love to hear more on this subject if you can be enticed. ; >

        BTW, how long did you let your vanilla extract steep. I’ve found that even when I use good vodka my drinkables like nocino are still improving after as much as years of mellowing.

  3. Very interesting. Now I’m waiting (patiently, I swear) for your promised low-down on the good vs. bad imitation vanillas. I’m thinking the Safeway store brand imitation extract languishing in the back of my cupboard won’t be making the good list.

    So, did you fess-up to that customer who assumed the improved doughnut flavor meant a switch to real vanilla?

    1. Hehe…yes Tom I promise I’ll put up a post on that tomorrow!


      – Joe

  4. ‘Burning’ is a good catchword. I once made Sugarroasted Almonds and by accident (D’Oh!) the sugar got too hot. I had imitation vanilla sugar (called Vanillin-Sugar here) in it, and it delevoped an intense, acute smell. Well, I am happy I didn’t waste real vanilla there, but that sure was not a nice experience and I now make very sure to not let my Vanillin get too hot. :/

    Is that special to imitation vanilla or does it happen with the regular, too?

    1. It happens with both…even more so with fresh vanilla beans. Those essential oils evaporate first and when they’re gone, they’re gone!


      – Joe

  5. I make my own vanilla extract with online-purchased Madagascar vanilla beans and the cheapest brand of vodka in our stores–Barton. How close is this to real vanilla extract, and, do you know if the kind of vodka makes any difference? I’ve found my baked goods to be significantly better since I started using this homemade vanilla, but am I just fooling myself? Should I start purchasing imitation?

    1. If it’s what you like I say more power to you! The one time I tried it mine turned out too weak, and the whole reason I buy extract is power! 😉


      – Joe

  6. Funny, just the other day I was trying to justify buying imitation vanilla for a cooking workshop I am teaching, and this solidifies that it is okay. I use vanilla beans in ice cream, and raw vanilla bean powder in some applications (it is AMAZING), but generally use imitation since I am constantly baking.

    I have always followed Joe’s Inverse Law of Ingredient Dynamics and now I can put a title to what I know works best! Trademark that?

  7. So, is there a brand of imitation that you prefer, Joe?

    I always keep a bottle of “Watkins Double-Strength Vanilla” on hand. It’s funny: I only use it in homemade marshmallow creme. The real stuff is just too overpowering in something like that.

    1. Hey Andrew!

      No there really isn’t since so much imitation vanilla is store-branded stuff. You just need to check the label I think!

      – Joe

  8. Hi Joe,

    This post reminds me of something I have been meaning to look into. What are your thoughts on cooking with vanilla sugar (by which I mean white sugar stored with the husk of a vanilla bean after the seeds have been scraped out)? I have some moderately well-aged vanilla sugar (4 months and counting, although I top it up periodically) and the scent is lovely, but my impression is that whatever actual taste there is is lost in baking and possibly also in stovetop cooking. I am thinking that there is something about this sort of “dry infusion” that is too volatile to withstand heat. Has that been your experience as well (if you ever use vanilla sugar, that is)?

    Thanks as always!

    1. Hi Jen, I have indeed made vanilla sugar and do use it. Like you I’ve never had good results using it for baking, the subtle flavors just get lost. I’ve had more success using it as a topping, in tea, things like that, where some of the vanilla aromas do come through.

      – Joe

  9. We have a 40 year old bottle of Smirnoff 100 proof Vodka which we inherited from my in-laws who were not really drinkers. It sat unused at our house for 10 years until a friend brought a bundle of vanilla beans as a gift. I found the old bottle of vodka and shoved a bunch of beans into it and promptly forgot about it for about 2 years. I just remembered it when I read your article; I pulled it out and smelled it and the resulting extract smells divine. I think I’ll decant some into smaller bottles. It will make wonderful holiday presents to my foodie friends.

  10. No way I’m using imitation vanilla extract. Here is my recipe, I sold this for many years & it’s good!

    For two fold vanilla extract take 100 vanilla beans, slit each bean then cut into about 2″ pieces, put in a half gallon jar & fill with a good strong vodka. Shake every day for a few weeks then every few weeks, then once a month but keep in a dark cool place. Don’t even think about using for two years then as you use down you can ‘feed’ it (add a little more vodka to it). Keeps indefinitely & it great! For selling I strained it, if not selling I leave in the jar. Be sure to use the caviar in the bottom, it’s really good.

    Store out of light in a dark cool place or an amber bottle away from heat.

    1. To each their own, Sue! 😉

      Thanks for weighing in and providing the recipe! Cheers,

      – Joe

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