Pure, Imitation, Mexican, or Emulsion- Which Vanilla Should I Choose?

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This world is so full of vanilla. It can be hard to know which one you should choose. Pure, imitation, Mexican, or emulsion? What’s the difference? Does it really matter that much? Do I use different vanillas for different recipes? Today I’m gonna lay it all out. I’ll talk about what each type of vanilla is, where it’s most commonly used, the quality of each type, and more.

Isn’t vanilla just… well, vanilla? Actually, not all vanillas are created equal. Just like chocolate and coffee, different vanillas have different flavor profiles, different methods of extracting the flavor, and different sources from which the flavors are created.

This is meant to be an unbiased explanation of all the different vanillas. To be honest, this was a really hard article to write because there are so many biased vanilla opinions out there. I’ve done my best to just lay out the facts. Take the information and make the choice for yourself. At the end, however, I do give an opinion and suggestion to help you better make your choice.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To be labeled pure vanilla extract, a gallon must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans and 35% alcohol. In oven-baked goods, such as cakes and cookies, it’s almost impossible to taste the difference between the flavor of items prepared with imitation vanilla or pure vanilla extract. That being said, I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who can taste the difference. It’s really up to you to experiment and see which you like more or if you can tell the difference at all. Something to be aware of is that when baking, some of the alcohol bakes out, taking some of the vanilla flavor with it. However, pure vanilla extract tends to be twice as strong in flavor as imitation vanilla. But it also comes with a higher price tag.

We carry Watkin’s Pure Vanilla Extract.

Imitation Vanilla

Imitation vanilla is synthetic vanillin made in a laboratory. If the product is clear, it’s 100% synthetic vanillin. If it is caramel color, it has been dyed with caramel color (which also contains sugar) or other dyes. If you purchase imitation vanilla in the market, it is safe. Imitation vanilla comes from synthetic vanillin, which mimics the flavor of natural vanillin, one of the components that gives vanilla its extraordinary scent. The two most common sources for synthetic vanillin have been Lignin Vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry, which has been chemically treated to resemble the taste of pure vanilla extract, and Ethyl Vanillin, which is a coal-tar derivative and frequently far stronger than either Lignin Vanillin or pure vanilla.

Imitation vanilla extract is affordable and is the vanilla extract predominantly sold in countries that produce vanilla beans.

We carry Watkin’s Clear Imitation Vanilla.

Mexican Vanilla

In Mexico, even though the country grows very fine vanilla beans, artificial vanillas dominate the market. Why? Because it’s more affordable. So you have to be careful when buying Mexican vanilla. You’ll need to read the labels to determine if you have a real Mexican vanilla or an imitation. However, if you’re buying vanilla in Mexico, be aware that label laws are not enforced. It would be best to buy Mexican vanilla in the U.S. from a reputable source.

But all that aside, what is Mexican vanilla? Traditional Mexican vanilla contains vanilla bean extractives in purified water, 10% alcohol, and less than 1% natural vanillin, which helps hold the flavor.

We carry Blue Cattle Truck Mexican vanilla. 

Vanilla Emulsion

A baking emulsion is a flavor suspended in a base containing mostly water. In contrast, baking extracts are flavors suspended in a base containing mostly alcohol. Because of the lack of alcohol, emulsions are not compromised by the flavor of alcohol and don’t “bake-out” when exposed to heat like an extract flavor. 

As far as uses go, bakery emulsions keep the incorporated flavors more stable while your mixture changes temperature and they combine more easily with other emulsions (butter, sugar, and egg for example) than extracts do. Those characteristics make them especially useful for pastry cremes.

So there you have it. Now, obviously this isn’t an all-encompassing article on all the different vanillas out there. Of course, there’s still vanilla beans,vanilla paste, vanilla flavoring oil, and I’m sure there’s more the I don’t even know about. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ve just talked about the most commonly used versions of vanilla. I hope this helps you as you bake.

Just as a side note, we ran a poll amongst our staff and Blue Cattle Truck Mexican Vanilla is their favorite.