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Cook's Illustrated: Vanilla smackdown

Cheesecake

Cook's Illustrated is a favorite among cooks for its practical, no-fuss, no-muss approach to food. For one, there are no ads. Also, with the exception of soft, natural colors on the front and back covers, the magazine is completely black and white. Inside, recipes are deconstructed and reconstructed to make them as fast and easy as possible, but without sacrificing taste (Kinda like a Consumer Reports for food and recipes). Another popular feature is the taste tests that, not surprisingly, often result in the blue ribbon going to a brand or product that is the least expensive one out there.

But the latest taste test, in the March/April issue, seemed almost sacrilegious: Cook's Illustrated found that there was no discernible difference between real or imitation vanilla when used for baking. Here's the article, which would normally be found behind Cook's Illustrated's pay wall, but they kindly agreed to let us use it here temporarily.

Read it and tell us what you think.

Can you tell the difference between real and imitation vanilla? Do you keep one, or both, on hand? If you're looking to conduct your own taste test at home -- in the interest of research! -- here are some dessert recipes to choose from, including two L.A. Times test kitchen recipes that call for vanilla extract: Tall and creamy cheesecake and Auntie Em's coconut cupcakes.

-- Rene Lynch

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post said that all the images in the magazine were drawn. Wrong! They are black-and-white photos.

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

 
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This is great article! I have experimented for years with vanilla and have found a few consistent trends.

First, imitation vanilla extract is mainly used as a sweetener. The imitation vanilla might be ok for items that you are not necessarily looking for a true, deep vanilla flavor, such as chocolate chip cookies.

True vanilla has a beautiful depth of flavor. A high quality vanilla extract will have many layers of flavor, much like a fine cabernet. When looking for true vanilla flavor, such as in creme brule or homemade ice-cream, there is no substitute for high quality vanilla extract.

Using whole vanilla beans is my true passion. There are many types of vanilla beans. Madagascar and Bourbon are the most common. Both are very smooth and offer that deep vanilla aroma that vanilla addicts crave. Tahitian vanilla beans have a much more floral and fruity aroma and flavor. This variety is great when pairing foods with fruits, or when more aroma is desired as opposed to intense flavor. Vanilla beans from the Kingdom of Tonga are woody and more spicy.

The Beanilla Trading Company (www.beanilla.com) has many of these vanilla types at really great prices. Their staff is also a wealth of knowledge.

Thanks again for the great article!

Interesting article. In addition to extract (real) I actually am also keeping a homemade extract, really just a little bottle of bourbon/vodka/whatever alcohol you desire infused with a few vanilla beans. I love checking up on its progress as it gets more vanilla-y!

I keep real vanilla beans and vanilla extract on hand. I prefer real vanilla extract, I feel it tastes less like alcohol than the imitation. I use nice vanilla beans for making ice cream and vanilla sauces, mainly for the authentic speckle. I use imitation in cookies, cakes, pies, etc. where it is used for flavoring rather than taking center stage.


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