When I’m baking, I try to use only the best ingredients. I’ve always figured it was worth the extra money to use pure vanilla extract because of the rich flavor it gives desserts.
So, when I came across a March story by editorial assistant Joe Sevier at epicurious.com, I was more than a bit shocked. The title of the article was “Is real vanilla always better than imitation vanilla?”
My immediate answer was, well, yes, of course!
Seems I was wrong, according to the experts and taste testers.
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Sevier says in the article that in culinary historian Sarah Lohman’s book, “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine,” she makes a case for times when imitation vanilla extract is actually preferable to pure.
Seems Lohman conducted a taste test where she baked two sets of cookies, one with real vanilla extract and one with imitation. Her tasters preferred the imitation cookies 2:1. The reason, Lohman says, is that all the little compounds that make up that complex natural vanilla flavor can’t survive high-heat cooking, and therefore add little to cookies — which cook to an internal temperature of about 300 degrees. Using imitation vanilla extract, a product made of synthetic vanillin, results in a cookie with more pronounced flavor.
Needless to say, the Epi Test Kitchen was still dubious, wrote Sevier. So its staff conducted its own blind taste test. Two batches of sugar cookies were baked, one with Spice Supreme Imitation Vanilla Extract, and the other with Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract. Both Sevier and one of his colleagues, a former restaurant pastry cook, both picked the batch made with the imitation vanilla as the favorite. The remaining tasters could detect no difference in sight, smell or taste between the two batches.
But, Sevier added, author Lohman recommends using vanilla beans for puddings and custards, which cook to a much lower temperature. She also cites a similar test from America’s Test Kitchen in which imitation vanilla tied with natural vanilla in a cake bake-off, but prefers using real vanilla extract for her own cakes.
Sevier concludes the article by saying homemade cookies will never be the same. “They’ll be better. Cheaper, too. And that’s a good thing.”
If you’re up for the challenge, next time you make a batch of sugar cookies, divide the ingredients in half before you add the vanilla. Use the real stuff in one batch; imitation in the other.
Then, test them on friends and family. Don’t cheat! Let me know what brands of vanilla you used and what the results were.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, 618-239-2664 and follow me on Twitter @BoyleSuzanne. Write to 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427.
Vanilla Pretzel Butter Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg white, for topping
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, for topping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together confectioners’ sugar, butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks, followed by vanilla extract. Gradually blend in the flour mixture. Dough will be thick. Divide dough in half and shape into discs. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30-60 minutes.
Divide dough into generous 1-inch balls and roll each ball into a rope about 5-6 inches long. Twist each rope into a pretzel shape. Place pretzels onto prepared baking sheet and gently flatten a bit. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg white. Use a pastry brush to brush the beaten egg white over the pretzels, then generously sprinkle them with coarse sugar.
Bake for 13-15 minutes, until very lightly browned around the edges. Allow to cool for 3-4 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.
Soft & Chewy Vanilla Butter Cookies
1 cup Butter Flavor Crisco
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1 1⁄2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon butter flavor extract (optional)
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, beat together Crisco, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, water, vanilla and butter-flavored extract until well mixed.
Add the flour, baking soda and salt to the mixing bowl and mix well.
Cover and refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.
Roll dough into 1 inch balls; slightly flatten and place on ungreased cookie sheet.
Place in preheated oven and bake for 8-10 minutes or until light brown. Makes 36 to 48 cookies.