Last Updated: Sep 8, 2020 @ 1:53 pm.

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Best Budget Friendly: Watkins All Natural Original Gourmet Baking Vanilla

Let’s talk vanilla extract.

Here’s something no one tells you about buying vanilla extract: you can’t tell the strength of vanilla extract by just tasting the liquid.

Vanilla extract reacts with other ingredients (and the alcohol cooks off in baking/cooking), making the flavor more intense.

When it comes to using vanilla extract in baking, there are different schools of thought. Some bakers love pure vanilla extract (which must contain at least 35% alcohol). It packs a punch in cakes and cookies.

Other folks think that extract tastes too alcohol-y. These bakers prefer vanilla flavor (which by law has less than 35% alcohol). These brands are marketed as “vanilla flavor” with vanilla extract as one of several ingredients. So even though these bottles are sold in the vanilla extract category, they technically are vanilla flavors.

There is no right or wrong answer here—it depends on your taste and what you are baking. So, this article will recommend both vanilla flavor and vanilla extract.

Yep, vanilla extract and flavoring can get pricey. Is there a budget-friendly vanilla flavor that is still excellent for baking?

Our pick would be Watkins All Natural Original Gourmet Baking Vanilla. It provides a smooth vanilla flavor at a price that’s easy on the wallet. Here’s more:

What We Liked

• Great vanilla flavor profile.

• No artificial colors or flavors.

• No GMO’s.

• No corn syrup.

• Made in USA.

• Derived from vanilla beans from Madagascar and Uganda.  

• Affordable.

What Needs Work

• Not pure vanilla extract. Yes, this is vanilla flavor—it’s vanilla extract plus sugar, water and other ingredients like propylene glycol.

• Artificial vanilla taste? When we had folks taste vanilla cupcakes made with Watkins Baking Vanilla, some testers said they thought the taste was a bit too artificial. This was a minority opinion, however. We liked the taste, although it is somewhat different than pure vanilla extract. But different isn’t bad!

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Best Organic: Simply Organic Vanilla Extract

We loved the smooth, rich taste this organic vanilla extract imparted to baked goods like sugar cookies. If you want to go for an organic vanilla extract, this is the one we’d recommend.

What We Liked

• Simple ingredients: vanilla beans plus naturally derived alcohol. That’s it.

• No added sugar.

• No GMO’s.

• Made from Madagascar vanilla beans.

• No artificial flavors or colors.

• Vegan.

• Gluten free.

• Organic alcohol (35%).

What Needs Work

• Pricey.

• Bottle can dribble when pouring. That’s annoying since it wastes precious (and expensive) drops.

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Best Tried & True Brand: McCormick All Natural Pure Extract

We love trying and experimenting with different flavors and extracts when baking . . . but sometimes you need to turn to a tried and true brand. For vanilla extract, that would be McCormick’s. Their vanilla extract is the most consistent from bottle to bottle. (That’s a problem with other vanilla flavors and extracts we’ve tried).

Here’s more:

What We Liked

• Straight vanilla flavor. Nothing fancy, just vanilla!

• No corn syrup.

• Gluten-free.

• No GMO’s.

• Reliable brand—consistent quality from bottle to bottle.

What Needs Work

• Pricey.

• Too alcohol-y? Yes, this is vanilla extract. That mean it contains at least 35% alcohol (McCormick has 41% alcohol). Some bakers think this extract imparts too much alcohol-flavor to baked goods. That’s a matter of taste, however. We think it works well in cookies and cakes.

• Younger bottles not as flavorful as aged ones. Yes, vanilla extract gets better with age—it’s best to open (and then close) the bottle when you get it. Let it sit for a couple of weeks.

That doesn’t mean a brand new bottle won’t work in recipes—it’s just that vanilla flavor is somewhat weaker the younger the bottle.

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Best Sustainable Vanilla: Rodelle Gourmet Pure Vanilla Extract

Since most vanilla beans are harvested from Africa, Indonesia and Mexico, sustainability is a hot topic area. Are the beans ethically sourced? Are there middlemen? What efforts to vanilla extract manufacturers to better the lives of vanilla bean farmers?

We tried out several vanilla extracts that claim to be sustainable, comparing them on flavor and value. The best bet: Rodelle’s Gourmet Pure Vanilla Extract. Rodelle sources its beans from an employee-owned cooperative in Madagascar. The company also eliminated middlemen to more accurately source where its beans are grown. Here’s more:

What We Liked

• No added sugar.

• Made in the USA from beans grown in Madagascar. 

• Simple ingredients. 

• Gluten free.

What Needs Work

• Aftertaste? We use Rodelle’s vanilla extract in both cookie and cupcake recipes and thought it worked well—the vanilla flavor has hints of bourbon and florals. At the same time, we know some of our readers who’ve used this extract in baking say it has a somewhat bitter aftertaste. We don’t agree, and note this is a minority opinion.

Why Trust Us

We’ve been rating and reviewing products for the home and families since 1994. We do hands-on testing—we buy the products with our own money and evaluate with an eye toward quality and affordability.

Here’s another key point: we don’t take money from the brands we review. No free samples, no sponsors, no “partnerships.” Our work is 100% reader-supported.

Why Trust Us

We’ve been rating and reviewing products for the home and families since 1994. We do hands-on testing—we buy the products with our own money and evaluate with an eye toward quality, ease of use and affordability.

Here's another key point: we don't take money from the brands we review. No free samples, no sponsors, no "partnerships." Our work is 100% reader-supported!

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