Though used colloquially to describe something as plain and boring, vanilla is actually anything but ordinary. This orchid-derived flavoring can trace its culinary roots back to at least the age of the Aztecs, and it enjoys a status as one of the most frequently-used and enjoyed flavors in baked goods, candy, and—of course— ice cream.
But not all vanilla is created equal. In fact, there are a few different forms that what we broadly call vanilla can take, each with their own preparation methods, attributes, and culinary use cases. For our purposes, we’ll be going over the qualities of and differences between vanilla extract, imitation vanilla, and vanilla bean paste.
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Of the three, you’re likely most familiar with vanilla extract, which can add sweet, flavorful notes to everything from cakes to custards and ice creams. As its name implies, this is a preparation of the vanilla plant which draws out its flavor by soaking vanilla pods in a solution containing both alcohol and water. The presence of alcohol may be surprising, but it’s literally an essential component: to meet the FDA’s definition of a vanilla extract, it must contain at least 35% alcohol by volume in addition to at least 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter.
Watch: What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla?
Primarily, what you’re tasting in a vanilla extract is a compound called vanillin, which naturally occurs in vanilla beans. However, a finished vanilla extract contains a wide variety of additional compounds with complicated names that add to the richness, depth, and complexity of its flavors. Combined with how readily available and fairly affordable vanilla extract is, it’s a frequent go-to choice for anyone making desserts.
Related: How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract and Never Buy Imitation Stuff Again
If you want that classic vanillin taste without the alcohol, that’s where imitation vanilla may come in handy. Derived from a synthetic form of the compound, imitation vanilla is primarily sourced from compounds like guaiacol and lignin. Harvesting them requires turning to some, shall we say, interesting sources. Among them are pulp wood paste (a byproduct of paper production), as well as coal tar, clove oil, pine bark, fermented bran, cow poop (yes, really), and the secretions from a beaver’s castor glands. The last one is frankly kind of gross (since it requires harvesting secretions from near a beaver’s anus), but for better or worse, the overwhelming majority of most artificial vanilla is derived from petrochemicals.
Finally, there’s vanilla bean paste. Essentially, it features the actual pod from a vanilla bean, supplemented by a syrupy sugar-water combo and a thickening agent. If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to get actual vanilla beans into your confections, vanilla paste introduces certain aromatic qualities in ways that extracts (real or fake) do not. And of the three options described here, it’s also the only form of vanilla with an aesthetic quality to it thanks to the little flecks of vanilla bean.
So what option is most relevant for you? It depends on your preferences. For example, some claim that a creme brulee could benefit from a vanilla bean paste, and candy makers like how it adds flavor without introducing unnecessary liquid. For what it’s worth, a taste test conducted a while ago by Cook’s Illustrated found that there was a fairly negligible difference taste-wise between authentic vanilla extract and imitation vanillin. However, the results did vary slightly based on what desserts the vanilla was featured in. With everything else being equal, you may prefer a more natural source of vanilla flavor as opposed to the artificial methods of harvesting vanillin mentioned earlier.
Ultimately, the right fit for you will probably come down to the price, and how often you’ll be using the vanilla. For example, a vanilla bean paste may not be a great buy if baking is nothing more than an annual exercise for you, as it does have a shelf life of about three years in most cases. Extracts (imitation or otherwise) also might be easier to find in your local supermarket, and they’ll work perfectly fine for needs.
Ultimately, don’t overthink it too much. After all, if a perfectly average natural vanilla extract is good enough for Paul Hollywood, you can be damn sure it’ll do the job for you.
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