If you've ever watched an episode of The Barefoot Contessa, you've probably heard Ina Garten say the magic words "good vanilla." Pure vanilla extract is an essential ingredient in her recipe for cinnamon-spiced shortbread cookies and nearly every other dessert she makes.
Sure, if we wanted to live our coastal grandma fantasy, we'd put pure vanilla extract in everything. But here's the thing: good vanilla is expensive.
Why Does Pure Vanilla Cost So Much?
Vanilla comes from a tropical climbing orchid flower that grows only in humid, tropical climates. After pollinating each flower by hand and taking care of the famously finicky plant, the edible fruit (known as the bean) is placed in alcohol to extract its signature flavor.
In order for vanilla extract to qualify as "pure," the FDA requires it to have 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon—that's anywhere from 100 to 130 beans! With the massive amount of vanilla used to make extract, the high cost of production, and unpredictable weather causing a global vanilla shortage, it's no wonder those tiny bottles can seriously hike up your grocery bill.
What Is In Artificial Vanilla?
If you've ever been tempted to forgo pure vanilla extract for the less expensive artificial version, we don't blame you. It's significantly cheaper and offers a similar flavor if you buy the right brand. But what makes it artificial?
Long story short—it depends. Some producers may still use real vanilla beans, but supplement them with dyes and synthetically derived vanillin (a molecule naturally found in vanilla beans, but typically made in a laboratory). Other brands don't use any real vanilla at all and rely on vanillin to get that classic flavor.
Vanillin can come from multiple places: wood pulp, petrochemicals, or even certain types of yeast. That may sound unappetizing, but if you're only using a small amount in a recipe, it won't make much of a difference.
Why Some Bakers Love Imitation Vanilla
Some bakers even prefer the flavor of imitation vanilla. Christina Tosi, founder of Milk Bar, swears by McCormick's clear vanilla flavoring because of the nostalgia it evokes. It has the same sweetness you can find in boxed cake mixes and store-bought tubs of frosting.
If a recipe calls for less than a teaspoon of vanilla among a long list of other ingredients, you can most likely get away with using the artificial stuff. However, it's worth investing in a bottle of pure vanilla extract to use for special occasions, like in dishes where vanilla is the star.
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