Fancy Vanilla: Is It Worth It?

We recently got into a discussion with our friend kms2 about extracts and vanillas, and it got us wondering if our reliance on Neilsen-Massey vanilla is baseless. I’ve been buying Neilsen-Massey instead of my grocery store’s standard McCormick vanilla extract for years now because Baker’s Catalog sells the 32-oz. bottles of it, and since I use a lot of it, it’s cheaper that way. But after kms2 asked if there was a discernible difference between them, I got to wondering if I hadn’t been just assuming all this time that the “fancier” vanilla was better, when in fact it wasn’t any different. It was time for a taste test, to determine if it was still worth it to mail-order my “gourmet” vanilla.

There are a lot of ways to showcase the flavor of a vanilla extract, but the choice was easy for us to make; we went with our favorite vessel for vanilla — cookie pudding. Also known as “Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough”. We figured it would be mature of us to also see how the vanilla holds up when baked, so we suffered the additional taste test burden of eating cookies proper as well. So how did it turn out?

In this corner we have McCormick real vanilla extract. This is the vanilla extract of our youths, and this batch of cookie pudding was the first time we’d made anything with it in probably ten years.

The striking thing about the McCormick cookie pudding was how buttery it tasted. And how floury. And how it didn’t really taste like anything else. The flavors of the various components of the pudding just sat there, uncombined, and then had a slightly astringent finish. The whole thing was very dull and flat.

The cookies were even worse, with a terrible astringency. These were very harsh, with a sort of burning aftertaste to them. All in all, not a pleasant cookie experience.

In the other corner we have the Neilssen-Massey, the vanilla of our adulthoods.

The pudding wasn’t as buttery as the McCormick version, but the flavors were far more united. The flour wasn’t as present as a flavor, and the salt was more smoothly integrated into the combined tastes. The vanilla itself was more flowery than the McCormick, and had none of the alcohol astringency from the first taste test.

The cookies were also smoother, and had none of the awful burn of the first batch. Maybe it’s just us, but there seemed to be no contest at all in this taste test. The McCormick vanilla (and again, this was real vanilla extract, not artificial or anything heinous like that) was a far inferior competitor. That might be because we’ve been adjusting to the flavor of the Neilsen-Massey for the last ten or so years, but whatever the reason, I’m going to keep buying my 32-oz. jugs of it through mail-order without guilt. It just tasted better.



Filed under Baked Goods, Cookie, Cookie, Cookie Starts With C, Taste Test

9 responses to “Fancy Vanilla: Is It Worth It?

  1. Thanks for the taste test! Truth be told, I haven’t used McCormicks for a couple years because I’ve been using a vanilla from Trader Joe’s that I like…Now I’m tempted to do a taste test.

  2. You totally should to a taste test — this was such a terrible burden, having to eat all this cookie pudding! :D (I bet the Trader Joe’s stuff is MARKEDLY better than McCormick’s.)

  3. HG

    I think maybe I used to use McCormick’s but then once I got on to vanilla straight from Mexico, it’s all I can use. I’m sure it’s not fancy or anything but a colleague brought me back some Xel-Ha brand in March. Sometimes I just open it and smell it.

  4. Oh MAN, but Mexican vanilla is DELICIOUS. We got a sampler of Madagascar, Tahitian and Mexican vanillas, and the Mexican was just MIND-BLOWING. Look at how it’s making me write in all-caps all the hell over the place! It’s JUST THAT GOOD!

  5. I forgot to mention that I bought King Arthur’s flour and I LOVE it!!! Granted, I haven’t made cupcakes or pancakes in awhile, but I swear the last two batches of cupcakes I made were heavenly!! and the pancakes were so good I think I’m going to make them every weekend. I swear, I’m so in love with King Arthur’s flour that now I want to bake things I’ve never baked before, like bread, just because I want to use the flour.

  6. I’m so glad it’s turned out so well for you, kms2! I had no idea it was THAT much nicer, but maybe it’s the flour that makes me like baking, too! :P

  7. NealZR

    A contestant, Sally, on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ had reached the final plateau. If she answered the next question correctly, she would win $1,000,000. If she answered incorrectly, she would pocket only the $25,000 milestone money. And as she suspected the Million Dollar Question was no pushover.

    It was, ‘Which of the following species of birds does not build its own nest but instead lays its eggs in the nests of other birds?

    Is it:
    A) The condor

    B) The buzzard

    C) The cuckoo

    D) The vulture

    The woman was on the spot. She did not know the answer. She had used up her 50/50 Lifeline and her Ask the Audience Lifeline.

    All that remained was her Phone-a-Friend Lifeline.

    She hoped she would not have to use it because….Well, her friend was, well, a blonde. But she had no alternative.

    She called her friend and gave her the question and the four choices. The blonde responded unhesitatingly: ‘That’s easy. The answer is C: the cuckoo.’

    The contestant had to make a decision and make it fast… She considered employing a reverse strategy and giving any answer except the one that
    her friend had given her. And considering her friend was a blonde that would seem to be the logical thing to do. But her friend had responded
    with such confidence, such certitude, that the contestant could not help but be convinced.

    Crossing her fingers, the contestant said, ‘C: The cuckoo.’

    ‘Is that your final answer?’

    ‘Yes, that is my final answer.’

    ‘That answer is absolutely correct! You are now a millionaire!’

    Three days later, the contestant hosted a party for her family and friends, including the blonde who had helped her win the million dollars.

    ‘Jeni, I just do not know how to thank you, ‘ said the contestant.

    ‘How did you happen to know the right answer?’

    ‘Oh, come on,’ said the blonde ‘Everybody knows that cuckoos don’t build nests. They live in clocks.’

    Sally fainted.

  8. Thanks for the vanilla reviews! I just emptied my bottle oh Xel-Ha and am in withdrawals! LOL THE CUCKOO, OCARP I LOVE a good joke and CAPS-LOCK.

  9. All extracts are made w/ harsh alcohol (moonshine) and very cheap vanilla. N.M. uses more vanilla per gl. as well as different types of vanilla to achieve their flavor which is why theirs is more expensive. If you truly love to bake and are going through a 32oz bottle on a regular basis you are better off making your own. It will be better and cheaper in the long run. Buy a 1/2 pound of top quality vanilla and 2 60oz bottle of Vodka (mid-price). Add a 1/4 pound to each bottle. The fastest way is to scrape seeds and to cut up pods and then add them to alcohol. Shake vigorously once a week for 6-8 weeks. This method and amt. of vanilla will give a 2x strength extract which will allow you to halve your recipes, if you wanted to that is. You could even create your own vanilla tincture by concentrating the recipe. Vanilla is VERY good for you, especially for men. Tons of anti-oxidants and poly-phenols. Can even double as a perfume (be prepared to beat men off w/ a stick though:)

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