by | Sep 2, 2021 | Z

Last Updated: Oct 28, 2021 @ 11:22 am.

We are picky about our vanilla extract. When you have a baking project, vanilla is often the secret ingredient that can make or break a recipe. To find the best, we did a blind taste test of 9 popular vanilla extract brands by baking a boatload of cookies. Our vanilla enthusiasts graded the results based on overall flavor. Here are the very best vanilla extracts we recommend.

FYI: We've been reviewing and rating products for the home and families since 1994. We don't take money or freebies from the brands we review. Our work is 100% reader-supported!


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Best Budget-Friendly

Naturally derived ingredients
Loved the smooth vanilla flavor for baking, with no GMO's, no artificial colors or flavors. Made in the USA. Caveat: not pure vanilla extract.
$11.33 ($1.03 / Fl Oz)

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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 pure extract tastes too alcohol-y. These bakers prefer vanilla flavoring (which by law has less than 35% alcohol). These brands are marketed as “vanilla flavoring” 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.

• Made in USA.

• No artificial colors or flavors.

• No GMO’s.

• No corn syrup.

• 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 Small Quantity

No GMO's
Perfect for small baking projects, this two-ounce bottle packs impressive vanilla flavor. Very good quality.

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Best Small Quantity: 365 Vanilla Extract by WFM

Sometimes you just need a small quantity of vanilla extract to do a project. This 2-ounce bottle hits the spot—very good quality and very impressive vanilla flavor, based on our blind taste tests.

What We Liked

 Perfect for small baking projects.

• Great vanilla flavor.

• No GMO’s.

What Needs Work

• Pricey.

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Best Tried & True Brand

Great, basic vanilla for baking
We love this brand for its consistency—high quality, good flavor profile with floral notes, no GMO's and simple ingredients. No corn syrup.
$35.90 ($2.24 / Fl Oz)

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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

• No corn syrup.

• Gluten-free.

• Straight vanilla flavor. Nothing fancy, just vanilla!

• 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’s 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 Bourbon Extract

Kosher, no GMO's
Yes, it is pricey, but this vanilla extract wowed us with its intense vanilla flavor—and for fans of bourbon vanilla beans, this would be our top choice.
$19.95 ($4.99 / Fl Oz)

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Best Bourbon Extract: Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract

Here’s a quick 101 course on vanilla beans.

The two biggest countries for vanilla bean production are Indonesia and Madagascar. Indonesian vanilla beans are also sometimes referred to as Tahitian, while Madagascar are occasionally called Madagascar bourbon.

Which is best? That’s a tough one—there is a split opinion on this.

Fans of Indonesian/Tahitian vanilla beans say they have a lighter, almost floral aroma. These beans infuse a sweeter vanilla flavor when used in baking.

Devotees of Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans, on the other hand, love their stronger, richer aroma. This is the classic vanilla flavor most folks think of when vanilla is on the menu.

If you want bourbon vanilla bean extract, this is the best bet based on our taste tests: Nielsen-Massey.

What We Liked

• Intense flavor.

• Delightful aroma.

• Only 35% alcohol. This is less than other extracts we researched for this article.

• No GMO’s.

• Gluten free.

• Kosher.

What Needs Work

• Very pricey.

Why Trust Us

We’ve been rating and reviewing products for the home and families since 1994. We do extensive research, evaluating products with an eye toward quality, ease of use and affordability. When we purchase a product for hands-on testing, we do so with our own money.

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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