Vanilla extract is the most popular source of vanilla in the food-making business with most of the vanilla beans farmed in Madagascar and its neighbor Islands – such as Reunion and the Bourbon Islands. This accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s supply. Mexico, Uganda, Indonesia, and Haiti are responsible for most of the remaining 20 percent.
Other than natural sources, Vanilla extracts can be made inorganically in the form of vanillin – whose base ingredient is sourced from wood barks and petroleum – which gives a very similar flavor to the natural counterpart.
The best vanilla extracts add a sensational flavor that is difficult to miss to your baked goods. It complements pastries like cookies, brownies, cakes, and cupcakes, making them extra delicious. If you are looking to take your baking game to the next level, a little vanilla flavoring might be what you need, and we bring you our top 7 best vanilla extracts from America’s Test Kitchen that you can buy and use today.
Best Vanilla Extract America’s Test Kitchen – Reviews for our Top 7 Picks
#1 – Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
The Neilsen-Massey name is not a stranger among culinary professionals. The family brand has been consistent with supplying high-quality flavors. Their Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is the best vanilla extract and proof of the brand’s commitment to putting the quality of the flavors above all else.
This particular product is packaged in a 32-ounce bottle as a fluid extract. The vanilla beans are cultivated in Madagascar, the world’s leading vanilla-producing nation. After it is carefully handpicked, the beans are selectively cured by hand to bring out the best of flavors.
The resulting taste is a full-bodied, sweet, and creamy extract, that flows mellifluously on the tongue, leaving a velvety after-tones. The entire processing is free of toxic chemicals. The extract is free of allergens and gluten that is sometimes associated with inorganically processed vanillin extract.
- Incredible taste and aroma
- Natural, Non-GMO production
- Concentrated extract that lasts longer
- Free of allergens and gluten
- Free gift box packaging
- – Expensive compared to competitors
#2 – McCormick All Natural Pure Vanilla Extract
The McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract is packaged in a simple, lovely bottle of a volume of 16 oz. The brand is cherished for its premium quality of flavors and aroma.
Made from high-quality vanilla beans, the extract packs a concentrated flavor and aroma that will completely transform your cooking, elevating it to its highest form in taste and smell. There are absolutely no corn syrup or trickeries employed by cheap manufacturers. The best vanilla extract comes in a deep, rich taste and color.
It is non-GMO and gluten-free. The McCormick Pure Vanilla extract has incredible versatility as well. It works well as a flavoring for pastries, and all sorts of baking, but can also be used to flavor meat sauces, marinades, and vinaigrette.
The best vanilla extract is always free from allergens and is certified for meeting FDA standards on food safety. You can be assured that you are using the top-most quality flavoring in your cooking and baking endeavors.
- Incredible taste and aroma
- Impressive versatility
- All-natural and pure extract, GMO-free
- Gluten-free and allergen-free
- Poor quality control
#3 – Simply Organic cvdx Pure Vanilla Extract
The product from Simply Organic offers two bottles of 4-ounce pure, organic vanilla extract. That makes 8 ounces in all. The bottles are small and made of glass, that preserves the flavor and aroma for extended periods of time.
The product is a pure blend of carefully selected and cured organic vanilla beans extracted in a mixture of water and organic alcohol. It gives a deep and satisfying flavor that is smooth on the tongue and blends perfectly with food. The fluid extract is, of course, free of gluten and allergens.
They are one of the best vanilla extracts in the United States. With Simply Organic’s vanilla extract, your safety is assured, and you don’t have to worry about any unexpected surprises. The vanilla beans are grown and processed in Madagascar with highly trained farmers who ensure the quality of each process of making the extract. After which it is packaged and distributed for use in the United States by Frontier Natural Products.
- Wonderful taste and flavor
- Effectively packaged
- Free of gluten and allergens
- Natural and organic origin
- Less product information
# 4 – Kirkland Signature Pure Vanilla
Packaged in a 16-ounce bottle, the Kirkland Signature Pure vanilla extract is left in a fluid form, dissolved in an alcohol/water mixture to preserve its flavor and aroma. Natural, pure vanilla extract’s signature color of genuine brown is evident through the container’s transparent bottle.
The pure vanilla extract has a rich and deep flavor that endows your baking effort with a sweet, smooth, and tantalizing taste as well as the pleasant sensation that overwhelms your olfactory system. To be sure, Kirkland Signature extract does not contain any trace of gluten, in case you or any of those you cook for have celiac disease or are allergic.
It is fully natural and extracted from Vanilla planifolia, one of the original varieties of Madagascar. The alcohol base gives it an extended shelf-life that preserves the flavor for months in case you don’t cook with it often.
- Lasting taste and flavor
- Safe for consumption
- Natural and free of inorganic elements
- Poor quality control
#5 – Danncy Dark Pure Mexican Vanilla Extract
This is a super affordable organic and the best vanilla extract sourced from Mexico, a deviation from the conventional Madagascar source from most big manufacturers. Despite this, the extract gives a concentrated and powerful flavor and scent that is difficult to miss.
The packaging strips off all the fancy found in many other brands, focusing on and using the quality of the vanilla extract as its selling point. Most users report having to use less than most recipes call for because of the strong flavor.
The simple package makes the product cheap and easy to afford. Danncy Dark Pure Mexican vanilla extract is packaged in two plastic bottles, each measuring 33 oz in volume; each is properly sealed. From the transparent plastic bottles, you can see the dark brown color, typical of natural and organic vanilla extract.
The extract is suitable for any cooking type, either baking or boiling – it adds a touch of class that will arrest anyone’s attention through its pleasant aroma. The description on the bottle reads, “Vanilla bean extractive in water and natural flavors, potassium sorbate.” The presence of the chemical potassium sorbate offsets certain buyers, a fear which is understood. But it is only added as a preservative.
- Strong, pleasant flavor and aroma
- Very affordable
- Organic and naturally sourced
- Free of gluten and other allergens
- Inconsistent quality
- Contains inorganic preservative
- Flimsy packaging
#6 – Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract – 8 ounces
This is another product from Nielsen-Massey, and it contains the same extract, but this is packaged in a different size. Only 8 ounces, which makes sense for you if you do not intend to use too much of the extract within the next few months. It is cheaper than its 32-ounce counterpart – you can easily purchase this to test the quality of the extract.
Sourced from Madagascar, the Bourbon vanilla extract is organically grown with no trace of GMO compromises. The vanilla beans are handpicked and cured before being extracted in a mix of water and alcohol base to bring you the unique flavor of quality vanilla extract.
The extracts add their creamy, distinctive flavor to food and pastries, leaving velvety after-tones on your tongue that make your taste buds ask for more. The product is versatile and can be used to complement a good range of recipes, from baked foods to savory dishes.
- High-quality vanilla flavor
- Safe and free of allergens
- Well packaged and easy to store
- It includes a gift box
- Short shelf life
- Expensive compared to similar products
# 7 – La Vencedora Mexican Vanilla Flavoring Extract
This is a neatly packaged vanilla extract, with its beans farmed and processed in Mexico. The product is contained in a 31 oz/1 liter glass bottle, which adds a touch of sophistication. It is properly sealed to preserve its shelf life as well as maintain the quality of the flavor before it is delivered to you.
It gives a sensational flavor that compliments your dishes and pastries flawlessly. It is processed with corn syrup for added taste, but you might find this a turn-off. It retains its strong flavor, and the aroma is not compromised. The bottle displays the natural dark color of the extract, in affirmation of its natural and organic source.
- Natural and organic vanilla beans
- Sensational aroma and flavor
- Free from allergens
- Quality packaging
- Contains additional sweetener
Types of Vanilla Flavorings
Fresh vanilla beans should be purchased when they are a little pudgy and have a nice oily gloss. While you may not be able to remove the beans from the container at the store, they will be slightly sticky to the touch and smell of vanilla and bark.
Beans that are past their prime will be dry and crumble or shred when cut, making it difficult to remove the seeds for cooking. Dry beans can be saved for liquid infusions that rehydrate the bean while absorbing vanilla flavors, or for making homemade vanilla sugar.
Vanilla beans can be used by splitting and scraping the tiny, juicy beans out of the pod and into your mix, or by infusing the bean pod into a liquid recipe for added flavor.
When using the bean pod, make sure you can remove it at the end of the recipe. Given the sticky and oily nature of pure vanilla beans, it’s best to use the extract in cake batters and other baked goods where a sticky bean clump might be difficult to thoroughly incorporate.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Pure vanilla extract is widely regarded as the most versatile vanilla product on the market. It’s made by infusing vanilla beans in at least 35% alcohol.4 The vanilla is extracted either by gently heating the liquid, which speeds up the extraction process or by cold extraction, which takes longer and costs more. The cold extraction process provides a broader range of flavors from the vanilla bean, which contains over 300 flavor compounds.
To preserve the additional flavors, cold extraction vanilla should be used for cold food applications. Many of the additional compounds are cooked off once it reaches temperatures above 220 degrees Fahrenheit.
While most of the alcohol in vanilla extract evaporates during cooking, there are alcohol-free alternatives. Instead of alcohol, glycerin is used to extract the vanilla in these cases. Although it is typically a little more expensive than its alcohol-based counterparts, the quality of the extract is still primarily determined by the origin of the beans, rather than the alcohol or glycerin used.
Imitation Vanilla Extract
Imitation vanilla extract omits the vanilla bean entirely and instead relies solely on the chemical vanillin, which is synthesized.
Although vanillin has the same chemical structure as the vanillin compound found naturally in vanilla beans, the extract lacks the complexity of the hundreds of other flavor compounds found in pure vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla extract is either clear or colored with caramel to resemble pure extract.
Imitation vanilla should be used only for large projects where the cost of pure extract would be prohibitively expensive, or for recipes where the quality of the vanilla has no bearing on the final baked goods. Some claim that imitation extract has a slightly chemical or artificial aftertaste, so it’s best used in fully cooked products to avoid any unpleasant aftertaste.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Vanilla bean paste is a thicker, more visually appealing version of vanilla extract that combines vanilla extract with vanilla seeds. Vanilla bean paste is the way to go for those who prefer the ease of an extract but also want the visual appeal of vanilla seeds speckled in their final dish.
It’s thickened with gum and sugar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has a stronger flavor. Bean pastes or extracts with seeds are more expensive than vanilla extract and can be used in both hot and cold cooking applications.
Vanilla Bean Powder
The vanilla powder was created to be a dry, alcohol- and liquid-free, and sometimes color-neutral substitute for whole beans and extracts.
It’s made by sprinkling pure vanilla extract onto maltodextrin (usually made of corn), which dries the extract on contact. It can be dissolved in liquids, but it can also be used in dry spice rubs, tea blends, and baking recipes. Choose a white-hued vanilla bean powder if you want vanilla flavoring without the brown color.
How to Choose the Best Vanilla Extract?
Picking a fresh vanilla extract off the market can leave you overwhelmed because of the many, many varieties available. However, oversimplifying the buying process as well by viewing them as just the same “flavoring” can lead you to make terrible choices, hence the need for this section to show you how to pick the best one for you.
1. Natural or Imitation?
The very first block when you decide to purchase a vanilla extract is usually the choice between choosing the natural or the imitation products. Natural vanilla extract is actually quite scarce and accounts for a very small minority of the products on the market.
This is because the cultivation and processing require delicate handling and a personal touch to ensure the survival of the crop and to bring out the flavor. Also, only selected regions are capable of supporting the growth of vanilla pods. All these factors contribute to the scarcity of natural extract. It also increases the price significantly.
The imitation or inorganically produced extract can be easily manufactured en masse, though through a series of controlled chemical processes that extract and process vanillin (the major flavoring ingredient in vanilla extracts). This extract is often sold quite cheaply and is often labeled as “imitation vanilla” in departmental stores. The result is often wholly vanillin and lacks the complexity of flavor that an organically extracted vanilla has.
However, after baking, most people cannot differentiate between the two types, making it not only acceptable but also widely employed. To confirm the type of extract you see, pay attention to the color.
The naturally sourced organic extract has a characteristic color of dark brown, while the imitation is often clear. However, the imitation can be colored using caramel, but the texture of the color is often a tell-tale that is easily distinguishable from the natural extract.
3. Size and packaging
The packaging especially can determine the shelf-life of your vanilla extract. The best vanilla extracts are not usually susceptible to spoilage because of the alcohol base, but poor materials used in the packaging can compromise its flavor and taste.
Because of its curing and alcohol base, vanilla extract has an extremely long shelf life and can be stored in a dark cabinet away from heat for years. Some people claim that the flavor improves after sitting. That being said, you don’t have to age your vanilla extract to get a good product.
Purchase only what you believe you will use in the next few months. Vanilla beans, paste, and powder can all be stored for a long time. All vanilla products should be tightly wrapped or lidded and stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Most extract bottles are dark in color to protect the extract from light damage.
Avoid storing vanilla products in the refrigerator; due to the extra moisture, vanilla beans and extracts may mold when refrigerated, and beans and extracts may pick up the ambient flavors of the refrigerator during storage.
After scraping a vanilla bean pod, you can store it at room temperature in a jar filled with sugar to make your own vanilla-infused sugar. This method also works with salt to create a moody vanilla-sea-salt garnish for glazed ribs or a chocolate caramel tart.
Alternative Video: Best Vanilla Extract
When properly selected, a quality vanilla extract elevates your dishes and adds more than a touch of flavor; instead, it delivers an extraordinary sensation to your pastries and cooking.
A careful look at the package description and ingredients ensure that you pick a safe product that perfectly complements your dishes without compromising on safety. Our review and how-to-choose guide have been written with careful research to enlighten and make it easier for you to pick out the best vanilla extract for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract (view on Amazon) takes the top spot due to its rich, high-quality vanilla flavor. Want pure, all-natural vanilla flavor that isn’t too pricey? McCormick All Natural Pure Vanilla Extract is a good option (view on Amazon)
In general, imitation vanilla flavor will suffice for baked goods. The taste difference is more noticeable in low-heat sweets such as puddings, pastry creams, and icings. Pure vanilla extract (or paste) yields the best results in no-bake treats, simmered sauces and custards, and frozen desserts.
Mexican vanilla beans have a thicker consistency than other varieties. Mexican Vanilla Beans have a flavor profile similar to Madagascar Vanilla Beans, but the Mexican vanilla has a mellower, smoother quality, and a spicy, woody fragrance that provides depth that the other vanilla beans cannot match and brings out the best vanilla extract.