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Imitation vanilla extract


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#1 mamster

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:04 PM

On Friday I read the new issue of Cook's Illustrated. Again they did a tasting of vanilla extracts, and again imitation vanilla extract (aka vanillin) tied with real. In fact, an imitation brand came in second place, but the total spread between first and last place was quite small. The panel include CI editors and pastry chefs--I don't remember any specific names.

They also said that for applications where the vanilla would be front and center, as in a custard, nothing compares with using whole vanilla beans. And they tried vanilla paste and powder and liked the powder best in cakes.

So I bought a bottle of Imitation Vanilla Extract, some no-name brand, at $3 for 8 oz. I've seen it for less. I made my usual chocolate chip cookie dough (which contains 2 tsp vanilla extract to 11 oz flour), and made half with real vanilla, half with imitation. (In a previous "experiment", I've left out the vanilla, and this was a painfully obvious change.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn't tell the difference between the vanilla and vanillin cookies.

Obviously, I should do more tests before making any rash conclusions, but I'll be awfully surprised if my results differ from CI's. Assuming I'm right, I see no reason to continue paying a premium for real vanilla (I will keep the beans on hand to use when appropriate, of course, and might try the powder). The best reason to use real vanilla extract, it seems, is fear of getting caught.

So: fess up. Who's using imitation vanilla? Who wants to dispute CI's conclusion, citing actual comparisons?
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#2 TrishCT

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:17 PM

I admitted in an earlier thread on vanilla that I use Watkin's Double Strength Vanilla which is labeled imitation, and Watkin's Clear Vanilla which is great for keeping whipped cream white.

Unlike the usual connotation of "imitation," meaning something totally fake, from what I understand, some imitation vanillas (including Watkins) actually are made from vanilla beans. Perhaps that's why they have such good flavor.

#3 KarenS

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:22 PM

No, never, and no thank's- you can have my share.

#4 vengroff

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:33 PM

Vannillin is the the primary source of flavor in vanilla beans. It can also be extracted from certain kinds of tree barks. The difference is that the small quantities of other flavoring agents that occur in the beans will not be found in the stuff extracted from bark.

I have not heard of "imitation" vanilla made from actual vanilla beans, but I've not looked at the Watkin's product. Perhaps it does not satisfy some technical requirement for how the beans must be processed in order for the resulting product to be labelled as vanilla extract.
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#5 eatmorepesto

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:40 PM

I think fake vanilla is very nasty. I think if you're going to use it, you might as well just buy your cakes or what have you from the grocery store and save yourself the trouble of baking. The primary reason I like to cook is so that I can use quality products and have delicious food.

#6 Wendy DeBord

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:56 PM

I'm guilty of being cheap about somethings (been places where it just wasn't optional to be cheap). And I honestly can't taste a difference between real and imitation in many baked goods.... with some HUGE EXCEPTIONS.

Where I'll use imitation: strongly flavored baked goods like carrot cake, chocolate, cinnamon etc...

Where I'll use real vanilla: butter cookies and butter cakes or plain sponge cakes, frosting etc...

Where I'll only use vb paste or fresh beans: custards, anglaise, etc... when the item is eaten cold and often I'll ad my paste after the item is cooked.

BUT I do think there's good and bad imitation vanillas out there just like there are good and bad tasting compounds. I trust anything Nelson Massey produces in the way of vanilla.

#7 mamster

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 07:59 PM

I think fake vanilla is very nasty.  I think if you're going to use it, you might as well just buy your cakes or what have you from the grocery store and save yourself the trouble of baking.  The primary reason I like to cook is so that I can use quality products and have delicious food.

Have you done a side-by-side comparison? If so, what food or foods did you use as a test case?

Sinclair, I find your balanced approach appealing.
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#8 wesza

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 08:42 PM

By far the worst purported pure, "Vanilla" being merchandised are some of the "Mexican Varieties", as sold on ebay and in stores located near border cities.

We actually sent ome out for evaluation, thru friends at a UW Lab, where they found nothing of any actual vanilla product in the bottles.

Why anyone would buy , or attempt to sell this stuff is wierd as it had zero taste or character, certainly wasn't extracted from ?

I've tried different varieties in blind tasting, hard to judge because residual tastes are harder to rinse from extracts.

I do feel that in applications similar to baking where nothing can replace sweet butter, the same applies to vanilla. I use Whole Pods whenever I wish to create something special. I understand that there's a pure powdered high quality Vanilla Powder in the marketplace. Has anyone tried this yet? Irwin
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#9 beans

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 09:03 PM

Even with Mexican vanilla, quality varies by brand. Nielsen Massey sells this Mexican variety too. I remember once someone telling me PBS had a show that tests products and found that imitation vanilla beat real vanilla some months back. That is sadly disappointing. But then so are the crop problems that are driving up the prices. :hmmm:

#10 mamster

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 09:41 PM

Probably the PBS show you saw was the Cook's Illustrated show, America's Test Kitchen.

I think the feeling against imitation vanilla comes down to two things.

1. Most "imitation" foods suck (tofu cheese, fake bacon bits, artificial sweeteners), and imitation vanilla says "imitation" right on the label. But imagine if kosher salt were required to say "imitation sea salt" on the label. Gourmets would shrink from it, horrified, right? If imitation vanilla really is just as good for a variety of applications, what's disappointing about that?

2. There are lots of lousy commercial products that taste terrible and contain imitation vanilla. They just don't necessarily taste terrible because of the imitation vanilla.

Before someone brings it up, I realize that in other tastings, Cook's Illustrated picked Heinz red wine vinegar, Whole Foods balsamic vinegar, and Colavita olive oil over higher-end products. That doesn't prove they're wrong here. So again, if you're going to dis imitation vanilla, great. But let's hear specifically how you tried it and how it failed. What I'd really like to hear about is a common way vanilla is used in baking where the alleged superiority of real vanilla extract shines. I will try it, I will have both versions served to me in a blind tasting, and I will be happy to retract what I said if the real vanilla is a winner. Hit me.

Irwin, I'm definitely planning to try the vanilla powder--the Nielsen-Massey brand can be ordered from King Arthur.
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#11 Wendy DeBord

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 09:48 PM

I've gotten that expensive powder you mentioned Irwin. I keep wondering if there was a mistake in the what I got. It's beyond bland and doesn't have any scent compared to a fresh pod....or even an extract.

I keep hoping that I'll find a use for it, but so far I haven't. I'm hoping someone might shed some light on this.

In contrast I have used vanilla powder that's not just scrapping from the bean and I've liked that.

#12 beans

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 10:08 PM

Probably the PBS show you saw was the Cook's Illustrated show, America's Test Kitchen.

I didn't see the show. Someone told me about it.

If imitation vanilla really is just as good for a variety of applications, what's disappointing about that?


What better living through chemistry when a perfectly lovely natural provides the same thing? Synthesized and chemically or organically created being favoured for better than the real deal. ("Yes folks, we have natural vanilla, but hey! Look!! We improved on it with imitation! So good, why bother with the the real McCoy!!!) :rolleyes: :blink: That sort of thinking.

Before someone brings it up, I realize that in other tastings, Cook's Illustrated picked Heinz red wine vinegar, Whole Foods balsamic vinegar, and Colavita olive oil over higher-end products. That doesn't prove they're wrong here. So again, if you're going to dis imitation vanilla, great. But let's hear specifically how you tried it and how it failed. What I'd really like to hear about is a common way vanilla is used in baking where the alleged superiority of real vanilla extract shines. I will try it, I will have both versions served to me in a blind tasting, and I will be happy to retract what I said if the real vanilla is a winner. Hit me.


Geez, I wasn't dissing and what's with the aggressive "Hit me." part? No one stated anyone was "wrong" did they? And opinions are varied! Thank heavens too!

#13 KarenS

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Posted 06 October 2003 - 10:26 PM

Why do you want whipped cream to be white? Vanilla is not clear.

#14 Elizabeth Ann

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 01:53 AM

Someone once gave me a bottle of "Mexican Vanilla". My son likes to add vanilla to his milk shakes so I let him use it. He said that it had ruined his shake, indeed the shake tasted just like suntan lotion! I threw the bottle away. I have tried cheeper brands of real vanilla and do not them as well as the Neilsen Massey or the stuff I buy from the Spice House. I bought some Mc Ness Vanilla on sale from Crate and Barrel and some tahitian vanilla from Trader Joe's. I don't think they smell or taste the same.

#15 TrishCT

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 04:49 AM

For sure, some imitation vanillas are probably nasty. I admit I have not tried many. My mother-in-law buys the Watkins products at a country fair and gives them to me at Christmas each year (double strength and clear, large bottles).

In addition to sham mexican vanillas, I think McCormick's real vanilla, the one traditionally sold in mass quantities in supermarkets, is not very good (more alchoholy than vanilla tasting.)

How's this for a test recipe...? French Toast. Using a plain bread like challah--- eggs, milk, vanilla as the dip. That might be a straightforward way to taste the vanilla differences.

Edited by TrishCT, 07 October 2003 - 04:50 AM.


#16 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 06:32 AM

Does anyone else make their own vanilla extract? I have a small bottle I keep in the spice cupboard. I take my leftover scraped pods and store them in the bottle covered with rum. Works well for me, the vanilla flavor comes through pretty quickly. I try to use white rum to avoid too much of a rum flavor and also that way I can seel when the liquid takes on a more brown vanilla color.

#17 mamster

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 07:18 AM

What better living through chemistry when a perfectly lovely natural provides the same thing?  Synthesized and chemically or organically created being favoured for better than the real deal.  ("Yes folks, we have natural vanilla, but hey!  Look!!  We improved on it with imitation!  So good, why bother with the the real McCoy!!!)  :rolleyes:  :blink:  That sort of thinking.

Oh, I'm not saying imitation vanilla is better. I'm saying it's as good for a fraction of the price. You can find 8 oz of imitation vanilla for $2, whereas the popular Nielsen-Massey Tahitian extract is about $25 for the same amount. And, if the Cook's lab testing is correct, the imitation vanilla has a higher concentration of vanillin.

I'm going to bring up salt again because I think the arguments are similar. Some people (including some professional chefs) use expensive sea salt such as fleur de sel for everything. I have seen people recommend using fleur de sel for salting pasta water. Now, there is no way that fleur de sel tastes worse than industrially produced kosher salt. And for, say, sprinkling on steak before serving, fleur de sel has a clearly superior texture. But for any application where the salt is going to dissolve, fleur de sel isn't worth the price--any difference is going to be so minor that practically no one, including professional chefs, will be able to taste it.

Now, I'm not yet convinced that the argument can be made as strongly for real vs imitation vanilla, but let's pretend for a moment that it can. If even those with trained palates can't taste the difference once the vanilla is baked into cookies or cake, is there any reason to use real vanilla at ten times the price? To support the struggling vanilla farmer?

I will be delighted to do challah French toast as my next experiment. beans, sorry about the "hit me" thing; I was getting carried away.
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#18 TrishCT

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 09:03 AM

...is there any reason to use real vanilla at ten times the price? To support the struggling vanilla farmer?

I can think of one reason. If you are going to the trouble of cooking something from scratch why not use the best quality product.

With that said, I feel Watkins vanilla is a good quality product. Others may disagree.

Mamster, in addition to french toast, simple whipped cream might be another good way to taste test vanillas. Perhaps the french toast could be served with whipped cream and strawberries? :smile:

#19 JFLinLA

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 09:39 AM

Random thoughts --

I am reminded of a saying of my mother's -- "If you can't taste the difference between butter and margarine, then eat the margarine." The corollary here, of course, is to trust your own taste buds. If you can taste the difference in something then by all means use the product you prefer. (By the way, my taste buds do know the difference between butter and margarine.)

I am swayed by the salt analogy. Here's another one. Sure ocean-fresh fish (or the fresh water equivalent) may be better from a "gourmet" stand point however, with over fishing and other issues, perhaps farm raised is the way to go these days.
So long and thanks for all the fish.

#20 Varmint

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 09:40 AM

...is there any reason to use real vanilla at ten times the price? To support the struggling vanilla farmer?

I can think of one reason. If you are going to the trouble of cooking something from scratch why not use the best quality product.

With that said, I feel Watkins vanilla is a good quality product. Others may disagree.

Mamster, in addition to french toast, simple whipped cream might be another good way to taste test vanillas. Perhaps the french toast could be served with whipped cream and strawberries? :smile:

But how do you define "best quality"?? If the taste is identical, then why would the real vanilla be of a higher quality than the artificial?
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#21 mjc

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 09:52 AM

I've made these cookie, which call for vanilla powder, and they have a great flavor. cookies
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#22 TrishCT

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 10:27 AM

...is there any reason to use real vanilla at ten times the price? To support the struggling vanilla farmer?

I can think of one reason. If you are going to the trouble of cooking something from scratch why not use the best quality product.

With that said, I feel Watkins vanilla is a good quality product. Others may disagree.

Mamster, in addition to french toast, simple whipped cream might be another good way to taste test vanillas. Perhaps the french toast could be served with whipped cream and strawberries? :smile:

But how do you define "best quality"?? If the taste is identical, then why would the real vanilla be of a higher quality than the artificial?

It's a food of love thing I think to use something "pure" as opposed to something "imitation." In terms of vanilla, the labelling might be misleading.

Perhaps Alton Brown or umm.. coff coff....Fat Guy... coff coff... or some other scientifically knowledgeable e-g'er would explain what the actual difference is between real and good quality imitation vanillas. :rolleyes:

#23 eatmorepesto

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 10:52 AM

I think fake vanilla is very nasty.  I think if you're going to use it, you might as well just buy your cakes or what have you from the grocery store and save yourself the trouble of baking.  The primary reason I like to cook is so that I can use quality products and have delicious food.

Have you done a side-by-side comparison? If so, what food or foods did you use as a test case?

No, I haven't done a special test. But at work when they'd have a birthday cake from Costco or Safeway, they always had an off taste or an aftertaste. I'd look at the label and it would say artifical vanilla. When I would make a cake with real vanilla or buy one from a quality bakery, it never had that fakey nasty taste. Also packaged cookies often have that nasty taste. I always assumed it was the artificial vanilla. Isn't it obvious to people?

#24 rickster

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 10:58 AM

The nasty taste could be due to other additives or preservatives.

#25 hjshorter

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 10:58 AM

No, I haven't done a special test.  But at work when they'd have a birthday cake from Costco or Safeway, they always had an off taste or an aftertaste.  I'd look at the label and it would say artifical vanilla.  When I would make a cake with real vanilla or buy one from a quality bakery, it never had that fakey nasty taste.  Also packaged cookies often have that nasty taste.  I always assumed it was the artificial vanilla.  Isn't it obvious to people?

I suspect that the Safeway cake has more issues with quality than just the artificial vanilla.
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#26 mamster

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 12:10 PM

For one thing, bad cake is often made with vegetable oil rather than butter. Veg oil is not only inferior in flavor to start with, it's prone to rancidity. Various preservatives have flavors of their own, and there's no preservative that will prevent a product from having that "sitting around" flavor sooner or later. Not rotten, or even stale exactly, just not-so-fresh. Other problems with supermarket cakes include bad chocolate, too much sugar, and frosting gone wrong.

Is artificiality a good enough reason not to use imitation vanilla? If so, why?
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#27 Human Bean

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 12:22 PM

...explain what the actual difference is between real and good quality imitation vanillas.

This web page will possibly tell you more than you ever wanted to know about 'real' vanilla.

A real vanilla bean has many different chemicals that create it's flavor and aroma. Of these, one, vanillin, is overwhelmingly responsible for vanilla flavor. It's relatively easy to synthesize vanillin in a lab; that's what goes into imitation vanilla (or possibly a minor variation called ethyl vanillin). (And even if created in a factory, vanillin is still vanillin; the exact same stuff the plant makes.) Many imitation vanillas also contain other related vanilla flavoring, whether synthesized or natural.

#28 GG Mora

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 12:47 PM

I've seen it for less. I made my usual chocolate chip cookie dough (which contains 2 tsp vanilla extract to 11 oz flour), and made half with real vanilla, half with imitation.


Yes, but have you ever tried making CC cookies with real seeds scraped from the bean? We're talking a whole new animal (especially if you add lightly toasted walnuts).

Edited by GG Mora, 07 October 2003 - 12:48 PM.


#29 mamster

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 03:00 PM

I haven't, GG, but I will now.
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#30 JFLinLA

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Posted 07 October 2003 - 04:01 PM

On the other hand, I think doubling the amount of vanilla in any recipe can only improve it in most cases.
So long and thanks for all the fish.