While culinary queen Ina Garten might be on team “Go to Tahiti, harvest the beans, and make your own vanilla extract,” the store-bought stuff is usually fine. But if you’ve been purchasing high-end vanilla thinking it would add a warmer, richer flavor to your favorite baked goods, think again.
As it turns out, expensive vanilla extract is no better than the cheap stuff.
According to a taste test by Serious Eats, you don’t need to break the bank to give your baked goods a signature vanilla flavor. The test used multiple varieties of vanilla extract—McCormick Real Vanilla Extract, McCormick Imitation Vanilla Extract, Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract, and whole vanilla beans—to determine if cost played a factor in flavor.
The cheapest of the bunch is obviously the imitation vanilla extract at just $.30/ounce. The most expensive extract was the Nielsen-Massey at $2.25/ounce, but even that doesn’t hold a candle to whole vanilla beans. They come in at nearly three dollars per bean.
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The taste test found that when used in baked goods, cooked ice cream bases, or when combined with other flavors, there really isn’t a discernable difference in taste. You can go for the “cheap stuff” and it will taste nearly identical to using whole vanilla beans. Hey, you can use the money you save on vanilla extract to buy not-so-wallet-friendly ingredients like butter and eggs.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t splurge on the “good” vanilla once in a while, though. If vanilla is the prominent flavor in your dish—like eggnog or uncooked ice cream bases—it’s worth it to use real extract or go all out with vanilla beans. A little goes a long way, and using real vanilla will really make your dish feel special.
So, whether you’re a cookie monster, a brownie connoisseur, or a cake fanatic, go ahead and save your money. Stop buying expensive vanilla, and enjoy more budget-friendly baked goods!