If you read much about baking, or watch a lot of cooking shows on TV, you may be under the impression that you need to spring for real vanilla beans in your baking. But according to Quartzy, that’s just not the case!
Cooking sites love to recommend that serious bakers use only real vanilla extract, and if you’re really serious, actual vanilla beans or vanilla bean paste for all baking needs. As critics see it, the artificial stuff is less flavorful, or worse made from chemicals.
Let’s start with the chemicals, since so many people are trying to eat cleaner and more organic. Yes, artificial vanilla flavor is artificial. It’s called “vanillin”, and it’s whipped up in a laboratory. However, vanillin is also found in nature.
It’s important to remember that vanillin, whether it’s sourced from a vanilla bean or synthesized in a lab, are the same thing. They are chemically indistinguishable.
In fact, the only difference between vanillin (natural or synthesized) and vanilla is 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, a chemical found in vanilla but not in vanillin! That extra chemical compound is why real vanilla also has undertones of other flavors.
The problem, though, is that all those notes of rum, cinnamon, and sandalwood that give vanilla its beautiful complexity are volatile, and they degrade quickly in high temperatures, like the ones in your oven.
Cooking temps actually destroy so many of the volatile compounds in natural vanilla that repeated taste-tests (with snickerdoodles! yum!) between the two show people consistently prefer artificial vanillin in their cookies!
And therein lies the answer: For more delicate items cooked at a lower heat—or no heat at all—think pudding, creme bruleé, and ice cream, real vanilla is more complexly delicious. For anything that goes into a 300-degree oven, stick with vanillin.
We love the flavor of vanilla. Who doesn’t? But after reading this, we might rethink our usage, so that we get the best vanilla flavor possible, whatever we’re cooking!