Bad news, ice cream lovers — the price of vanilla is set to skyrocket this year.
In the past five years, vanilla has gone from $20/kilogram (2012) to $250/kilogram (2016). Just this year alone the price has tripled, and it's expected to keep rising. Meanwhile, the quality is also deteriorating.
It's a complicated game of balancing price with demand in a global marketplace. Also, while the increase in demand has boosted prices, it's led some vanilla farmers to start selling vanilla beans when they are younger and uncured. In these green vanilla beans the flavor compounds vanillin and piperonal (among others), which give the beans their flavor, haven't fully developed yet. This means the vanilla on store shelves is less flavorful than it once was.
Not that bad, actually. A comprehensive taste test by Cook's Illustrated in 2009 found that in baked goods, the difference between pure vanilla and imitation vanilla extract was nearly undetectable. Taste testing cake, the real stuff won out by just a hair, while in cookies, which are baked at a higher temperature, the imitation vanilla actually performed better than the pure extract did.
In general, using real vanilla makes a difference in desserts where it's the main flavor and in non-baked desserts like pudding.
In both Cook's Illustrated's test and this taste test from Serious Eats, pure vanilla extract won out over imitation in foods like pudding and eggnog, where the vanilla is added without any additional cooking. But Serious Eats also suggests that if all you have on hand is imitation vanilla, adding an equal part of vodka or bourbon to the recipe you're making can help make it taste more like the real deal.
Besides price? Read the ingredient labels at the store carefully.
The only ingredients in pure vanilla extract should be vanilla bean (or vanilla bean extractives), water and alcohol. Some brands contain corn syrup, glucose or other added sweeteners, but if you're shelling out for the real thing, you want to look for the simplest ingredient list.
Imitation vanilla extract should be labeled as such. Sometimes it does contain a small amount of real vanilla extract. If you aren't sure whether the product you're looking at is artificial or the real deal, keep an eye out for "vanillin," "ethyl vanillin," "caramel color" and "natural and artificial flavor" in the list of ingredients.
Either way, it seems there's a place for both these products in the kitchen, and whether it's a fancy pure extract or an inexpensive bottle of imitation flavoring, I think we can all agree that classic vanilla is an enduring favorite for a reason.
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