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When baking or using vanilla, most recipes call for vanilla extract. In the supermarket you can find imitation vanilla flavoring for less money. Obviously the imitation is meant to be as close to the real thing as possible, but:

  • Is there a detectable difference between imitation vanilla and vanilla extract?
  • Do any issues arise in baking/cooking resulting from using one or the other?
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You can buy extract at Sams / Costco for preety cheap. –  mohlsen Jul 20 '10 at 15:50
    
Please consider that when you buy artificial vanilla, you are supporting big corporate manufacturers. Buy pure vanilla and you support the farmers, and, in my opinion, your tastebuds. You may pay more, but you use so little in a cookie recipe, for example, that it costs you practically nothing. You can read more on imitation vs. pure vanilla here. –  user22675 Jan 21 at 0:00
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5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Yes, you can detect the difference. How much of a difference will depend on the quality of both the imitation and of the real thing.

That said, it's difficult if not impossible for me to pick out the differences in baked goods. So I keep both around, and use the (much cheaper) imitation stuff for baking, and the real stuff for sauces, icing, custards, milkshakes, etc.

Incidentally... In a pinch, bourbon makes a half-decent substitute for vanilla.

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+1 Excellent reasoning for the uses of both, perhaps I will add them both to the pantry. –  JYelton Jul 9 '10 at 22:49
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America's Test Kitchen said in their taste testing, most people couldn't tell the difference. Some actually preferred the fake stuff, as it wasn't as boozy. –  Joe Jul 11 '10 at 14:43
    
Bourbon? I thought it was rum. I use that in french toast. –  Aaronut Jul 11 '10 at 14:55
    
@aaronaught: I personally find bourbon to have a sweeter, stronger flavor... But then, I don't buy a lot of rum. As with most substitutions, YMMV –  Shog9 Jul 11 '10 at 16:52
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There's one more reason to sometimes use fake extract -- you can get it in clear. The real stuff is always a shade of brown.

Not being brown is important for when you're trying to get really vibrant colors on a cake. (you also have to switch to shortening as butter tints things yellow).

ps. For some reason, people don't like it when I respond to 'this icing is really good' with 'that's because it's whipped Crisco'.

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I have taken a few cake decorating classes, and this answer brings back memories! You're right, color is an important factor in baking when appearance is critical. In regard to your postscript, somehow I feel less "guilty" being told I'm eating butter rather than shortening -- I'm not sure why! –  JYelton Jul 11 '10 at 16:48
    
@JYelton : I did Wilton 1, 2 & 3 about 8 years ago, as I had agreed to make a wedding cake for a friend ... which somehow went from 'plain white cake' to 150 cupcake with a rose on each one. Luckily, I figured out where I could buy pre-made sugar roses. –  Joe Jul 11 '10 at 17:27
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In a recent Cook's Illustrated blind taste test (not sure if it was double blind), testers unanimously preferred the flavor of imitation vanilla to some rather fancy 'real' vanilla extracts.

You might try a blind or double blind test yourself and see what you think.

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One could easily argue that's because your average Jane has been conditioned to like the flat one-note flavour of imitation vanilla. The imitation stuff is pure vanillin (the dominant flavour/aroma in vanilla), while the real stuff has hundreds of complex flavours and aromas, including flowery notes. –  daniel Jul 20 '10 at 14:59
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True, although Cooks Illustrated tasters aren't really "average Janes." Also, I'm not sure exactly what was tasted for comparison, presumably not teaspoonfuls of vanilla extract. –  Peter V Jul 20 '10 at 19:26
    
It was covered on their cooking show (America's Test Kitchen). They were sampling the extract mixed into milk. The complaint about the real stuf was it was "boozy" (and they said that it's true -- the real stuff had more alcohol in it). I think they also tried it cooked into stuff, but what it was, I can't recall, and it's already aged off my tivo. –  Joe Jul 21 '10 at 1:23
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Smell both, you'll note the difference.

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Also, consider using real beans for things like custards and ice cream. You end up with little black flecks (vanilla seeds) but I find these add character and authenticity to the dish.

My rules:

Cold and/ or Creamy: Vanilla Bean Baking: Pure vanilla Extract.

However, I don't do all that much dessert cooking, so I can afford the real extract. I suppose if I was baking daily, I would reconsider the use of artificial extracts.

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