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Posted in Food
February 11, 2019

Imitation Vanilla: Surprise!

Many of us highbrow snobby cooks will only use real vanilla extract. We wouldn’t sully our cooking or our reputations by using the imitation stuff.

Well, SURPRISE! The imitation stuff may actually taste more like the real thing than the real thing!

An article in the January/February Cook’s Illustrated, by Hannah Crowley, discusses the difference between the two, and what happened in a blind taste test. Here’s the short version of the research:

  1. Both are flavored with vanillin. Lab-created (synthesized) vanillin has the exact same molecular make-up as the vanilla that comes from the vanilla beans produced by a vanilla orchid.
  2. Pure vanilla extract contains .03 to .10 grams per 100 millileters. Imitation vanilla contains between .32 and .64 grams of vanillin. In other words, up to 21 times as much vanillin! So which do you suppose tastes the most vanilla-y?
  3. Pure vanilla extract has a minimum of 35% alcohol, and that imparts a flavor. Imitation vanilla has little or no alcohol. That means the vanilla flavor is just that—vanilla flavor.
  4. When flavor is extracted from real vanilla beans, vanilla is only one of the flavors in the resulting extract. In fact, vanilla could be only one of 250 flavors in that extract. These can be unpredictable both in flavor and intensity. Sometimes, they may be noticeably “other”.
  5. The Cook’s Illustrated taste-testers preferred the imitation stuff. Specifically, they most liked Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor. Baker’s uses two different kinds of synthetic vanillin, and that’s what the testers liked the best because “it had a stronger flavor”. Remember these are hoity-toity cooking folks doing a blind taste test.

“So what’s the downside of the imitation stuff?” you ask. Two things.

First, industrially-manufactured vanillin uses a chemical derived from petroleum. Damn. And almost all of the brands contain artificial color. Less of a big deal, but still, damn. Some companies add other flavorings to their faux vanilla, maybe to mimic those intruders in the flavor of pure vanillin that I told you about.

Second, potential damage to our pride. Many “real” cooks don’t want to be caught using something other than “real” vanilla.

Here’s the thing…the price of pure vanilla extract has shot through the roof, due to cyclones in Madagascar and an increase in demand by Nestle, who is trying to prop up their faltering reputation by touting the use of something “natural”. My feeling is that once prices go up, they rarely go back down just because we wish they would.

Baker’s Imitation Vanilla has .58 grams of vanillin, and an 8 oz. bottle is about $1.

A pure Vanilla Extract may have .05 grams of vanillin, and an 8 oz. bottle can run you upwards of $49.95.

So what will you do?

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