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Vanilla is a popular flavor and key ingredient in countless desserts, from your favorite homemade chocolate chip cookies to the decadent buttercream frosting that's piped on cakes for special occasions. But with the variety of vanilla extracts available on the market, with varying names, strengths, and flavor profiles (not to mention price), it can be hard to know which to choose for whatever recipe you're making.
Real, "pure" vanilla extract—made from higher-quality vanilla seed pods harvested by hand—are typically pricier and have different flavor profiles and consistencies from extracts synthesized in a lab. And there is a wide variety to be found even among genuine vanilla extracts, such as those derived from Madagascar, Tahitian, or Mexican vanilla beans.
Here, we break down the difference between the top vanilla extracts to help you choose.
Nielsen-Massey is a brand that’s well known by home bakers who appreciate good quality at a fair price. The all-purpose vanilla extract—described as sweet, creamy, and mellow—works well for all of your baking as well as for cold desserts like ice cream or pudding. It’s made from Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and is GMO Project verified, kosher, and gluten-free.
This vanilla from Thrive Market is made from organic, ethically-sourced Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. Along with being organic, it is also non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, and kosher—and very wallet-friendly compared to other popular extracts. The extract comes in a bottle that’s made from recycled plastic, making it even more eco-friendly. While it doesn’t contain dairy, wheat, or soy, it is made in a facility that processes those products, so keep that in mind if you have allergies or sensitivities.
The best vanilla extracts can be expensive, and some more affordable alternatives have added sweeteners or flavorings. If you're looking for a more affordable option without artificial flavors, try this pick from Great Value. Reviewers say it tastes just as good as more recognizable name brands, but is significantly less expensive, especially if you're baking or cooking with vanilla extract on a regular basis.
Want nothing but pure, natural vanilla flavor? There's no beating McCormick's Pure Vanilla Extract in taste and value. Made from Madagascar vanilla beans, water, and alcohol, this extract will give your recipes that classic vanilla flavor without any artificial ingredients. The lack of added sugar also makes this extract a great pick for savory recipes that involve vanilla—and because it's pure vanilla, a little goes a long way when you're baking or cooking.
Best for Ice Cream: Nielsen-Massey for Williams Sonoma Madagascar Bourbon Tahitian Vanilla Extract, 8oz.
Made by Nielsen-Massey specifically for Williams Sonoma, you won’t find this particular vanilla extract anywhere else. It's made from a combination of both Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans and is produced using a cold extraction process that preserves the subtle flavors of vanilla that may otherwise be lost with heat. In order to keep the flavor richest, give this extract a try in cold recipes, whether you're making ice cream or a refrigerator cake layered with whipped cream.
This unique product is thick, syrupy, and filled with tiny vanilla bean seeds, so your finished desserts will have that characteristic speckling you normally only get from fresh vanilla. The company uses a combination of both Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans, so you’ll get the flavor and the characteristics of both in one bottle. This syrup can replace standard vanilla extract in all your recipes in equal amounts, even though it's on the thicker side. It comes in an 8-ounce bottle that will last you through multiple recipes, but we have a feeling you'll keep finding excuses to use it.
This extract is made from ethically sourced Polynesian vanilla beans. While most vanilla uses alcohol to extract the flavor, this pick uses glycerin instead, making it a great pick for anyone who prefers to remain alcohol-free in their cooking. There is no added sugar, but the glycerin used to extract the vanilla flavor adds a bit of sweetness. You'll only get about 1.86 ounces of syrup per bottle, making this one of the pricier picks on the list, but it's well worth it if you want a high-quality, alcohol-free option and don't have time to make it yourself.
This extract is formulated specifically for baking, although we wouldn’t judge if you added it to your buttercream frosting as well. It’s made using vanilla extract as well as chocolate extract and other flavors that will enhance your cakes, muffins, pastries, and more. Because it’s not 100 percent vanilla, it’s less expensive than pure vanilla extracts, but still offers great flavor. There’s no need to worry about how much to use—it's a one-to-one substitute for plain vanilla extract for all your baking recipes.
A great vanilla for when vanilla is the background note, this recipe includes pure vanilla extract along with other flavorings, like vanillin, which are intended to enhance the vanilla flavor. The ingredient list also includes caramel coloring to give the extract that rich brown color. This vanilla extract is made in Mexico, with the authentic flavor you’ll find in traditional Mexican desserts. One reviewer adds a little of this extract to their pancake batter, which their kids love so much, they don't even add syrup on top!
The Ultimate Vanilla Extract Buying Guide
To assume that something vanilla-flavored means that it’s plain is a misconception perpetuated by the ubiquity of the ingredient in ice cream and baked goods. But vanilla, which is the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron, is far from plain. As a matter of fact, vanilla’s popularity comes from the depth, warmth, hint of floral notes, and touch of sweetness it adds to so many recipes (and perfumes), both sweet and savory, that benefit from its flexibility.
Vanilla Bean Origins
Vanilla beans are the seed pods (technically fruits) of the vanilla orchid plant. Once the arduous process of manual pollination was discovered and refined in the 1840s, the large-scale production of vanilla was set into motion—prompting the creation of industrial extracts. Not sure which vanilla you’re buying? Like good wine and coffee, the country of origin should be on the label. Occasionally, the extract may be a blend, and if no country of origin is listed, it is likely from Southeast Asia.
Eighty percent of the world’s vanilla is now grown in Madagascar. It is most commonly referred to as Bourbon or Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. Bourbon refers not to the liquor, but the island just to the east of Madagascar where that particular vanilla was originally cultivated. Madagascar vanilla is known for its richness, high quality, and consistent flavor across a wide range of baked goods. The flavor is strong enough to stand up to, and enhance, equally intense flavors in both sweet and savory recipes.
Vanilla is native to Mexico and was carried across the globe in the 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese merchants and sailors. While no longer the leading producer of vanilla in the world, Mexican vanilla is still highly regarded as the finest vanilla on the market. Known to be more woody and spiced compared with other vanillas, this vanilla is lovely when showcased on its own or in conjunction with warm baking spices like nutmeg, allspice, and cloves.
Tahitian vanilla is celebrated for its floral and fruity cherry-like notes. It gained popularity for its unique flavor profile over the last decade or so; consequently, it can come at a higher price than other vanillas. Some of the delicate tropical flavors can be lost when using this vanilla in heavier recipes, so to really get the most out of this particular vanilla, try using it in cold or frozen recipes.
Indonesia and other tropical regions
While the three regions above are considered the main sources of highest-quality vanilla, Indonesia and other tropical vanilla-farming regions also produce vanilla in relatively large quantities. Where these vanillas differ is in their drying process. Vanilla is traditionally dried in the sun, taking a month or more to cure. In Indonesia, vanilla beans are typically dried over fire, expediting the drying and curing process, and adding a smoky flavor to some of the vanilla crops.
Vanilla extract is sold in as small a quantity as 2 ounces, and up to a gallon by some producers. Don’t despair if some of those larger bottles of single-origin vanilla extracts are cost-prohibitive—2- and 4-ounce options are typically more reasonably priced and can last for a few small cooking projects.
For more delicate projects like ice creams, custards, and buttercreams, where the flavors of the vanilla are really going to shine through, it’s worth it to splurge on the higher-priced vanilla, perhaps in a smaller quantity, to get your recipe made. For larger baking projects or baked goods that will be baked at temperatures over 300 degrees, a less expensive pure vanilla extract without specific regionality listed will get the job done and be a little lighter on the wallet in larger quantities.
If you’re an enthusiastic baker, it’s worth it to go ahead and get yourself an 8-ounce bottle of extract (or larger) to avoid running out in the middle of a project. Also, the price of extracts usually decreases a little by volume, so you’ll probably be getting a better deal in the long run with a larger bottle.
For an idea of how much use you’ll get out of your bottle of extract, 1 tablespoon is about ½ of an ounce.
Also, switching between different types of vanilla products is easy to convert:
1 vanilla bean = 1 tablespoon vanilla extract = 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste = 1 tablespoon vanilla powder.
How much use you’ll get out of your vanilla will depend entirely on your recipes.
Vanilla extract is typically made by infusing vanilla beans in alcohol and water, and then straining out the beans at peak infusion. Extracts can also include sugar, and occasionally additional flavors. Depending on the type of vanilla product you’re using, it may also include a thickening agent. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients listed on the label, the better the extract is.
In some cases, you may find extracts in single strength or double strength (also called single- and double-fold). This means that a ratio of about 100 beans infused in a gallon of alcohol and water was used to create single-strength vanilla extract. Double-strength extract doubles the concentration of beans in the gallon. Double-strength vanilla extract is most commonly used for industrial baking or highly sensitive projects where additional liquid could adversely affect the recipe.
You may also see an extract labeled as “concentrated,” but this does not mean that the strength of the vanilla extract is greater. In these cases, the synthetically produced “vanillian” has been added to a watered-down vanilla extract to produce a lower-cost alternative to pure vanilla extract.
The price of vanilla beans can be surprising to those buying a jar for the first time. They're commonly sold in grocery stores in glass jars with two beans, costing around $15. For recipes requiring multiple beans, vanilla can easily become the most expensive ingredient in your recipe.
The high price of vanilla is a reflection of the labor-intensive and often fickle nature of vanilla farming, beginning with the years-long process of growing individual vanilla orchid vines, hand-pollinating each flower in a window of time that lasts less than a day, and carefully protecting the pods as they grow.
After the bean pods have been harvested, the long curing process begins, starting with blanching the beans to halt their development, followed by drying the beans in the sun by day, and then sweating them tightly wrapped in fabric by night—which ferments the beans, takes at least a month, and is done completely by hand. Then, the beans are conditioned before being sold whole or turned into extracts.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that the price of vanilla can be staggering, especially as you move up in both the quality and quantity of vanilla used. Luckily, there is a range of vanilla prices suited to the intensity of your cooking needs.
On the lower end of the price spectrum are imitation vanilla extracts and extracts that are blended or produced quickly, which can be found for less than $10. If you’re looking for organic, alcohol-free, or sugar-free options, the extracts will likely cost more, anywhere between $10 to $20 for a 2- to 4-ounce bottle. Once you begin purchasing vanilla with more distinctive flavors from specific regions, you will likely see the price begin to increase anywhere from $20 to $80 or more. Vanilla bean pastes and powders are both specialty ingredients and are typically more expensive than vanilla extracts, based on the size they come in.
Types of Vanilla Extract
Fresh vanilla beans should be purchased looking a little pudgy with a nice oily gloss. While you may not be able to take the beans out of the container at the store, they will be a little sticky to the touch with the smell of vanilla and bark straight out of the jar. Beans that are on the older side will be dry and crumble or shred when cutting, and it will be difficult to remove the seeds for cooking. Dry beans can be set aside for liquid infusions that can rehydrate the bean while soaking up the vanilla flavors, or for making homemade vanilla sugar.
Vanilla beans can be used by splitting and scraping the tiny juicy beans out of the pod and into your mix, or infusing into a liquid recipe with the bean pod included for additional flavor. When including the bean pod, you’ll want to make sure you can remove it at the end of a recipe. Given the sticky and oily nature of pure vanilla beans, it’s best to go with an extract option for cake batters and other baked goods that might be difficult to thoroughly incorporate a sticky bean clump into.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Pure vanilla extract is considered the most versatile of the vanilla products on the market. It’s made by infusing vanilla beans in a minimum of 35% alcohol. The vanilla is extracted either by gently heating the liquid, which expedites the extraction process, or by a cold extraction, which typically takes longer and costs more. The benefits of the cold extraction process include a wider range of flavors from the vanilla bean, which has over 300 flavor compounds.
Cold extraction vanilla should be used for cold food applications to preserve the additional flavors. Once it is heated to over 220 degrees, many of those additional compounds are cooked off.
While most of the alcohol in vanilla extract evaporates in the cooking process, there are also alcohol-free options. In these cases, the vanilla is extracted using glycerin instead of alcohol. The quality of the extract is still predominately based on the origin of the beans, not the alcohol or glycerin used, although it is typically a little more expensive than its alcohol-based counterparts.
Imitation Vanilla Extract
Imitation vanilla extract skips the vanilla bean entirely and relies solely on the synthetically produced chemical vanillian. Vanillian has the same chemical structure as the vanillian compound naturally found in vanilla beans, but the extract itself lacks the complexity of the hundreds of other flavor compounds found in pure vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla extract is either sold clear or with an additional caramel color to mimic pure extract.
Imitation vanilla should be reserved for large projects where the price of pure extract would be prohibitive, or projects where the quality of the vanilla plays a negligible role in the final baked goods. Some people claim that imitation extract has a slightly chemical or artificial aftertaste, so it’s best used in products that are fully cooked to minimize any unpleasant aftertaste.
For those interested in the clear extract for color-sensitive recipes but want to maintain the integrity and complexity of the vanilla flavor, consider using vanilla powder.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla bean paste is the thicker, visually exciting counterpart to vanilla extract, blending both vanilla extract with vanilla seeds. For those who prefer the ease of an extract but also want the visual appeal of vanilla seeds speckled in their final dish, vanilla bean paste is the way to go. It is thickened with the addition of gum and sugar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has a more intense flavor. Bean pastes or extracts with seeds included can be used in both hot and cold cooking applications and is typically more expensive than vanilla extract.
Vanilla Bean Powder
Vanilla powder was developed as a dry and color-neutral alternative to whole beans and extracts. It is made by spraying pure vanilla extract onto maltodextrin (typically made of corn), which dries the extract on contact. It can easily be dissolved in liquids, but can also be used in dry spice rubs, tea blends, or in addition to regular baking recipes.
A trusted brand in professional pastry kitchens and bakeries, Nielsen-Massey made its name on vanilla extract and continues to seek out and produce the world’s highest-quality vanilla products. It provides vanillas from every terroir in the form of extracts, as well as paste, beans, and powder. The brand's line of extracts has expanded beyond vanilla to floral, citrus, and spice extracts, as well as organic, fair-trade, and no-sugar-added options. Nielsen-Massey also provides a wide range of sizes for those who want to experiment with different vanilla flavors without investing in large quantities.
Thrive Market is an online grocery provider specializing in sustainable, organic, and non-GMO products. Its vanilla extract is ethically sourced, moderately priced, and packaged in recycled and eco-friendly packaging. Additionally, the extract is kosher, vegan, without added sugars, and additive-free.
Founded in a basement in 1889, McCormick has grown into an international spice company found in nearly every grocery, convenience, and drug store in the United States. The vanilla offerings include both pure and imitation vanilla extracts, as well as vanilla bean paste and concentrated vanilla extract. McCormick vanilla products are all reasonably priced and come in a variety of sizes and strengths to suit your home baking needs. Additionally, McCormick has committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of the spices and vanilla it sells by 2025 and reducing its water consumption by 20%.
Sonoma Syrup Co.
Beginning with syrups made for specialty mixed drinks, Sonoma Syrup Company has expanded its line of products to include extracts, bar mixes, and drinking vinegars. Its products are made in small batches with sustainable ingredients. This smaller artisan brand doesn’t come cheap, but it provides the highest-quality extracts for those who are interested in an ethical product.
Heilala is a New Zealand brand specializing in all things vanilla. With vanilla primarily sourced from Tonga, Heilala offers vanilla in bean form, as well as extracts, paste, syrup, powdered, and vanilla sugar. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, check out the exclusive line of flavored vanilla extracts that include spiced, oak-aged, and coffee-flavored vanilla, among others.
Vanilla extract is incredibly shelf-stable thanks to its curing and alcohol base, and it can last years stored in a dark cabinet away from heat. Some people report that the flavor is even better after sitting. With that said, you don’t need to age your vanilla extract to get a great product. Buy what you think you’ll use in a matter of months.
Vanilla beans, paste, and powder are also shelf-stable. All vanilla products should be tightly wrapped or sealed with a lid and stored in a cool area away from sunlight. Most extract bottles are dark to help prevent light from damaging the extract. Avoid storing vanilla products in the refrigerator. Vanilla beans may grow mold when refrigerated due to the extra moisture, and beans, as well as extracts, may pick up the ambient flavors of the refrigerator during storage.
After you’ve scraped a vanilla bean pod, you can make extra use of it by storing it at room temperature in a jar filled with sugar to make your own vanilla-infused sugar. This process also works with salt for a moody vanilla-sea-salt garnish sprinkled over glazed ribs or a chocolate caramel tart.
While many people consider vanilla a supporting player, it should be considered as integral as any other flavor choice in a recipe. Easy to love by nearly everyone, vanilla is a true indulgence that can be showcased with some of the finest beans and extracts on the market. Your choice of vanilla can easily boost the appeal of your baked goods and leave your friends and family wondering what the special ingredient was that made dinner so fantastic.