What Is Pure Vanilla Extract—And Is It Worth The Cost?

Can you cut corners with an imitation product?

vanilla extract and vanilla beans
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Vanilla extract shows up on the ingredients list for a wide variety of treats. Everything from puddings and chocolate chip cookies to classic cheesecake and pound cake calls for a teaspoon or two. But what exactly is vanilla extract?

There are several types of vanilla extract, and the battle between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla is never-ending. Here, discover just what pure vanilla extract is and whether it's really worth the extra cost.

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is a flavoring agent used to enhance a variety of desserts and even savory dishes. It interacts with other ingredients in a recipe to make each bite much more flavorful.

Pure vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans. Imitation vanilla extract, on the other hand, is a synthetic product made from vanillin.

How Pure Vanilla Extract Is Made

Pure vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans, which are soaked in a solution of alcohol and water. During that soaking process, the flavor and color of the vanilla bean are extracted, allowing the potent liquid to be used in your favorite recipe.

Why Does Pure Vanilla Extract Cost So Much?

If it's just vanilla beans soaked in water and alcohol, why is it so pricy? According to Stephen Chavez, chef-instructor of Pastry & Baking Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education, pure vanilla is expensive because the beans come from a delicate plant that only grows in tropical regions.

"It is subject to weather issues in those regions, such as monsoons and other tropical storms, which can easily drive up the price of the vanilla," he says. Of course, once the price of vanilla goes up, so does the price of vanilla extract. "The demand never decreases but the supply does, causing the price to increase almost seasonally," he adds.

Is Pure Vanilla Extract Worth It?

​Depending on the brand and store, pure vanilla extract will typically cost $1 to $3 per ounce. Luckily, most recipes only call for one teaspoon or two, so the bottle can be used for a few treats. But is the extra cost of using pure vanilla worth it?

"The flavor from pure vanilla extract is tremendously better than cheap vanilla extract," says Chavez. And most professional bakers would agree.

Imitation vanilla extract is still a fine option if you'd prefer to keep costs low. If you do choose to use imitation vanilla, it's best used when baking cookies or a cake, rather than using it for no-bake desserts, such as custards or cheesecake, where the vanilla flavor is most pronounced.

But overall, imitation vanilla will not enhance the flavors in a recipe in the same incredible way that a teaspoon of pure vanilla does.

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