There’s no denying it, vanilla beans and pure vanilla extract are expensive. As we write this, the price of vanilla on the global market is close to $600 per kilogram. These high prices can be attributed to the fact that 80% of vanilla is grown in Madagascar, and the country has had supply issues over the past decade due to weather issues and the pandemic.
Despite how expensive it is, if you’re a dedicated baker or chef, there’s really no substitute for the real thing. That is to say, there are artificial vanilla flavorings chemically synthesized from a bunch of unnatural stuff, but you don’t want to put that in your body. Also, you don’t want to ruin that dish you worked so hard to make by making it taste artificial.
Although vanilla is expensive, it is available, unlike five or six years ago when there was a real worldwide shortage. So if you’re planning on baking a delicious cake or a batch of cookies from scratch, go with the real thing. We’ve put together a rundown on the best vanilla extracts you can find online.
The Best Vanilla Extracts
No matter what your situation is, we have an option well suited for you.
Best Overall: McCormick Small Batch Pure Vanilla
McCormick uses 100% Madagascar vanilla beans in a small batch extraction for stronger flavoring. The product uses Rainforest Alliance Certified beans and is non-GMO. The single-origin extract creates a clear, authentic flavor that’s great with anything.
Best Budget Choice: Thrive Market Organic Vanilla Extract
Thrive Market’s organic vanilla gives you four ounces of pure vanilla from Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. It’s packaged in recycled materials and offers a great all-purpose flavor for baking, making drinks, or adding to dishes.
Best Sweetened Vanilla: Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract
Madagascar vanilla is one of the top-rated flavor profiles for this delicate bean. It contains sugar, which gives you a sweeter, creamier flavor profile with rich undertones perfect for baking. It’s non-GMO and certified kosher.
Best for Baking: Rodelle Organics Baker’s Extract
This vanilla extract also contains pure chocolate extract to bring out an intense yet multifaceted flavor. It’s USDA-certified organic and non-GMO. The flavor stands up to heat and mixing, making it a great addition to cookies or cakes — anything where you need flavoring to enhance and make things stand out.
Best Gift: Nielson Massey World Vanillas
If you’re curious about the difference in flavor from one area to the next, this gift set allows you or your gift recipient to try three vanillas from around the globe. The collection includes the most sought-after beans in the world: Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, and Madagascar vanilla.
Best Paste: Blue Cattle Truck Trading Co. Gourmet Mexican Vanilla Bean Paste
If you need something more substantial for your ice cream or other desserts, a paste is a good choice. This one uses pure Mexican vanilla beans and leaves in the “caviar” vanilla seeds for texture. It’s easy to work with and offers a bold vanilla flavor using hand cultivated family-grown vanilla beans.
Best Alcohol-Free Choice: Heilala Baking Vanilla Extract
Not far from the island of Tahiti, the Kingdom of Tonga produces pure vanilla extracts found in this bottle. It’s unsweetened and offers a small batch, ethically sourced choice with bold, rich flavoring. Instead of alcohol, this version uses glycerin to extract the flavor and blends the seeds in with, mimicking the taste and feel of scraping the vanilla bean itself.
Best Double Strength Formula: Watkins All Natural Original Gourmet Baking Vanilla
Watkins’ potent vanilla extract uses non-GMO, organic beans for a double-strength flavor that stands up to baking and freezing. It contains no artificial colors or flavors and uses a low alcohol content that won’t evaporate as you’re working with it.
Best Splurge: Beanilla Madagascar Vanilla Extract (Double-Fold)
This double-fold vanilla extract uses twice the normal amount of beans in the extraction process. Farmers leave beans to mature on the vine for longer to intensify the final taste, and you’ll only need half your usual amount for a rich flavor.
Most Unique: Nielsen-Massey Ugandan Pure Vanilla Extract
With a bold, bright flavor and undertones of chocolate, this single-origin vanilla extract comes from an unexpected place. Ugandan vanilla offers a creamy texture and goes best with bold desserts such as dark chocolate or citrus blends. The cold extraction process helps preserve the complex flavor notes, and it’s organic and non-GMO.
How To Choose Vanilla Extracts
Here are a few things you should keep in mind when purchasing your vanilla extract.
How Is an Extract Made?
The extract is not “flavoring.” Cheap “flavorings” use artificial, lab-created ingredients for a consistent and affordable taste. They’re often flat and uninspired, but they’ll do the trick for standard baking.
On the other hand, pure vanilla extracts use real vanilla pods and typically a blend of alcohol and water to pull out the flavor. Makers infuse the alcohol with the vanilla pods and then strain when the flavor reaches its peak.
In some cases, extra ingredients such as sugar or additional flavoring and coloring are added to improve the initial taste or look, but this is unnecessary.
Where Does Vanilla Come From?
Vanilla grows from a vining orchid species. The flowers are painstakingly hand-pollinated, and the beans take around a year and a half to mature and cure. Three areas are well known for producing high-quality vanilla beans, and their locations provide different, complex flavor notes:
- Madagascar — Produces the majority of vanilla beans and has a strong, high-quality flavor that’s a good option for baking or freezing.
- Tahiti — Produces a lighter, more floral vanilla that doesn’t always stand out after heating or freezing. This vanilla makes great cold desserts or delicate infusions.
- Mexico — Initially cultivated by the Totonacs and Aztecs and offers a woody, spiced flavor note that’s outstanding with warm desserts and baking spices like clove, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
Other regions such as Indonesia or even some African nations also produce vanilla beans. Each area offers a slightly different flavor profile thanks to subtle climate differences. It can be exciting to branch out and try different ones.
What Size Do I Get?
You don’t need to purchase giant bottles unless you’re a commercial baker. Natural vanilla extract goes a long way from just a little and will store best in the two to eight-ounce range. If you’re going to splurge, go for a smaller bottle to use in cold desserts or drinks because heat can degrade the flavor just a little.
What Strength Do I Need?
Single fold and double-fold vanillas tell you a lot about the flavor profile as well. Vanilla extract typically uses a gallon of alcohol and water with 100 vanilla bean pods to infuse. Double fold uses 200 vanilla bean pods with the same amount of water.
“Concentrated” vanilla, on the other hand, often contains synthetic vanilla flavoring to reduce spoilage and increase the volume. Check the ingredients on the back to ensure you’re getting a pure vanilla extract — vanilla beans, alcohol, and water.
How Do I Store My Vanilla?
The extract process helps preserve the vanilla, but there are some things you can do to help it last as long as possible. Always store your vanilla in a cool, temperature-stable location away from light or heat drafts. This includes both liquid extract and paste.
If you’ve gotten vanilla beans, you can store them in a jar of sugar in the same location as your extracts to infuse the sugar with a delightful flavor note.
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