Between my cookbook and life at Serious Eats, I exist in a constant state of recipe development, which means I plow through more vanilla extract than the average baker.
Vanilla extract is, in many ways, the black pepper of dessert—a pantry staple that most of us take for granted, but one that has tremendous power over the aroma of a dish, even when it only plays a supporting role.
Vanilla comes from an orchid whose cultivation is both time-consuming and labor-intensive, so simply bringing vanilla pods into existence is a costly endeavor. Beyond that, additional time, labor, and expense go into grinding, steeping, distilling, and maturing those beans in both water and ethanol to extract their full range of flavor (which you won't get by stuffing a few split beans into a bottle of vodka).
Given all that goes into its production, good vanilla extract is rightfully expensive. But with supermarket vanilla, you're paying for convenience rather than quality—tiny bottles you can have now, rather than larger ones that take some forethought to acquire.
When it comes to vanilla extract, I like to play the field, picking up new bottles as I discover them. These are the vanillas I currently have on the shelf, including some that are blended with synthetic vanilla (like Kenji, I think imitation vanilla has a good deal of strategic value) and while that selection will no doubt be different a month from now, I can gladly recommend any of these as stepping stones to the world of vanilla beyond the supermarket shelf.
Flavorganics Organic Vanilla Extract
Open up the bottle and you'll feel as if you stumbled into an ice cream parlor; the aroma of Flavorganics' extract is mellow, smooth, and rich like vanilla ice cream. It's a versatile vanilla, as happy in baked goods like chocolate chip cookies as it is in raw applications like no-bake cheesecake and peanut butter frosting.
Heilala Pure Vanilla Extract
One of the more complex vanillas I've come across, it has the same grassy, vegetal aroma of a freshly split vanilla bean with a flavor that's both earthy and deep. It's a double fold vanilla, which means you can get away with using half as much in your favorite recipes—something worth remembering when you consider the cost.
You can pick it up in a cute, trial-sized bottle as in the photo above, but the price drops by half when you buy it by the pint. I find its nuance well suited to vanilla-forward recipes like Swiss buttercream and cocoa butter cookies, but it can also stand up to the complexity of desserts like tiramisu.
Heilala also makes a concentrated vanilla bean paste that truly packs a punch, with more vanilla seeds per teaspoon than most other brands.
Nielsen-Massey Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract
Tahitian vanilla has a more floral, aromatic quality than Madagascar or Mexican vanillas, so it's one I like to have on hand for recipes with a delicate flavor profile—especially those where the extract can be stirred in as a finishing touch at the end. Think panna cotta, butterscotch pudding, or even cream cheese buttercream. Single origin extracts can be tricky to source, but Nielsen Massey is easy to find in speciality stores or online.
Watkins All Natural Original Gourmet Baking Vanilla
Watkins Baking Vanilla is a blend of both natural and synthetic vanilla, which gives it an unusually bold flavor in baked goods (where many of the subtle flavors in natural extracts can fizzle in the heat).
If even a semi-synthetic vanilla is a nonstarter, Watkins also makes an assertive Madagascar Vanilla Extract that can stand up to baking (I use it in my vanilla butter cake and E. L. Fudge knockoffs).
Nielsen-Massey Mexican Pure Vanilla Extract
For those uninterested in synthetics, Neilsen Massey's single-origin Mexican vanilla has a deep, earthy flavor that pairs with everything from gingerbread to chocolate cream pie.
Global Goods Clear Mexican Vanilla Extract
Like Watkins, Global Goods Clear Vanilla is a blend of natural and synthetic vanilla, formulated to be crystal clear. While admittedly a strictly cosmetic feature, clear vanilla is a prized ingredient among bakers obsessed with snowy white royal icing for snowflake cookies, or an angel food cake as white as a cloud. Since it's not completely synthetic, this extract has an unexpected depth of flavor when compared to other clear brands, and the fancy bottle makes it great for gifting as well.
Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla bean paste isn't something I'd use in place of extract, but with the price of vanilla pods at an all time high, it's an economical way of adding vanilla flecks to recipes that are designed for vanilla beans, like my pear galette.
The realm of vanilla extracts is vast, and worth exploring. Join me?