Pure vanilla extract, vanilla flavoring, imitation vanilla... what's the difference? Can they be used interchangeably in recipes? Is one better than another? Here's the lowdown on this sweet-smelling pantry staple.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Vanilla beans are expensive, retailing in some specialty shops for as much as $2 to $3 each. The price of pure vanilla extract is also high, but this can vary due to the quality of the beans used to make it. The best vanilla beans are the products of orchids that grow only in tropical climates. Beware of "pure" vanilla extract that seems unusually cheap. If the bargain seems to be too good to be true, it's probably an adulterated extract or the beans were of poor quality.
Pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction. The extract must be 35 percent alcohol to meet FDA standards. These are the minimum requirements. Additional alcohol content is allowed and results in a deeper, richer flavor.
By FDA definition, a "pure" extract means that the vanilla flavor can only come from vanilla beans and nothing else. This factor draws a definitive line between pure extract and imitation vanilla, but it relates only to the vanilla flavor and doesn't necessarily mean that nothing other than vanilla beans contributed to the overall product. It's not uncommon to find vanilla extracts that contain a little sugar or corn syrup, and this is perfectly legal because neither contributes to that vanilla taste.
Pure vanilla extract that has no added sugar or corn syrup will last forever, aging like a fine liqueur. The older the extract, the better it becomes, losing any bitterness even without the help of added sweeteners.
You can make vanilla extract at home by soaking fresh vanilla beans in vodka or another neutral-flavored liquor. Simply split the beans, scrape the gooey seeds into the container, then cover it, pods and all, with your spirit of choice. It takes about two months for the extract to mature.
Imitation Vanilla Extract
Imitation vanilla is made from artificial flavorings, which isn't surprising. What might raise your eyebrows is that most of these artificial flavorings come from wood byproducts, and those byproducts can contain chemicals. People with discerning palates usually find that imitation vanilla products have a harsh quality with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
If you're tempted to substitute imitation vanilla for pure vanilla extract in a recipe, you will need twice as much imitation vanilla flavoring to match the strength of pure vanilla extract, but this comes with a risk. Imitation vanilla is typically made with synthetic vanillin extracted from wood pulp, so you forgo the gentle vanilla hint that you'd get with the real deal when you opt for imitation. In other words, pure vanilla extract packs more into less. This might be okay if the focus of the recipe isn't its vanilla flavoring; otherwise, you'll probably want to spend more for pure vanilla extract.
Vanilla flavoring is usually a combination of imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract. It's cheap, but that may be the best that can be said for it.