When it comes to vanilla, we may be tempted to assume: of course real is better. But you may be surprised to learn that in some cases, people — experts, even — can’t tell the difference between real and synthetic vanilla. In fact, when asked to choose between real and fake in a blind taste test, most people prefer the dessert flavored with fake vanilla.
How could that be? Have we really devolved so much as a society that we can’t even tell what’s real anymore? Well, no. But as with many of life’s counterintuitive moments, there’s a scientific explanation.
Real vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla pods in alcohol for at least 6 months. This gradual process releases upwards of 250 different taste and aroma components, many of them too subtle for our mortal noses to perceive. And when we bake with authentic vanilla extract, most of these complex compounds are destroyed in high heat anyway. (Think cookies, which bake at a temperature of at least 300 degrees Fahrenheit.)
But one compound stands out above the others: vanillin. Vanillin is what gives our bakes their characteristic vanilla flavor, and it’s the compound that endures the more intense heat of the oven. That’s why the flavor still comes through, but compared to what it could be, our authentic vanilla extract — dynamic, subtle, precious — is wasted on recipes that bake at such high temperatures.
When to Use Real Vanilla
Synthetic vanilla, on the other hand, is also made with vanillin, but not from real vanilla pods. Artificial vanillin is derived from sources like guaiacol (a fragrant wood oil) or lignin (a polymer in plant tissue). Not the most mouthwatering news to hear, but even so, fake vanilla extract packs a simpler yet more concentrated punch of that classic vanilla flavor. So when baking cookies, for example, with synthetic vanilla extract, more of that vanillin flavor survives the oven and makes its way to our taste receptors than do real vanilla flavors. Our taste buds simply register the fake vanilla as having a “stronger” taste. And this is why blind taste testers would (unknowingly) choose the cookie flavored with fake vanilla as the superior cookie.
So the takeaway is that real vanilla is not always superior to fake vanilla, despite the connotations of the word “fake.” There are circumstances that call for real vanilla over synthetic, and synthetic over real. Simply put, it’s important to be intentional wherever vanilla is concerned so that you get the best possible outcome whenever you use it.