Sure, it may be another word for “plain,” but vanilla is far from boring. Its flavor can range from floral to savory and, depending on the market, its price per pound can be as much as a designer handbag. (Don’t even get me started on the drama of shortages and imitations.) Oh, yeah, and it’s found in everything from cookies to quick bread to ice cream.

So yeah, vanilla is essential in the kitchen…and that makes buying it all the more contentious. What’s the best vanilla extract your money can buy? I tasted all the options I could get my hands on to find out.

But wait: What is vanilla, exactly?

Although it’s considered a spice, vanilla comes from the fruit of a specific species of Mexican orchids. The vanilla beans you can buy in the store are the result of hand-pollinating the vanilla orchid flowers (which only blossom one day a year), harvesting the mature pods on a daily basis and curing the pods in a months-long process—and that’s before it even becomes extract. Vanilla is extremely labor-intensive to produce, making it the second-most expensive spice after saffron.

How can you tell if it’s good vanilla extract you’re buying?

Apologies to your wallet, but price is one of the best indicators of a high-quality vanilla extract. Because it’s so difficult to grow, the best vanilla extracts will cost more. Other than that, examine the label: Good vanilla extract will contain 35 percent alcohol (by law) and not much else—the FDA allows sugar, glycerin, propylene glycol, dextrose and corn syrup, but the fewer ingredients, the better.

Can you replace vanilla extract with vanilla “flavor”?

Sure, you can do whatever you want! The good news is that vanilla “flavor” is still made from real vanilla beans. The difference is that flavor isn’t made with alcohol, so it’s not an extract. Use it in a 1:1 ratio anywhere you would use vanilla extract. (And for the record, even imitation vanilla, which is purely synthetic, has its place if you’re after a super nostalgic, artificial flavor.)

best vanilla extract cupcake test
Katherine Gillen

Taste-Testing Vanilla Extract: The Methodology

In my quest to find the best vanilla extract, I tested each option in both a baked and a raw application: vanilla cupcakes and Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, respectively. But in lieu of making approximately one million batches of cupcakes and frosting, I divided the amount of vanilla extract in each recipe by the number of brands, then added that amount to a single cupcake or a portion of the frosting. I stuck with Madagascar vanilla (as opposed to Tahitian or Mexican) for consistency.

best vanilla extract frosting test
Katherine Gillen

After dirtying my apron, I buckled in for the taste test and considered these factors:

  • Value: Simply put, is the extract worth the money?
  • Quality: As Ina Garten puts it, is it “good” vanilla, or is it borderline fake?
  • Flavor: What does the vanilla taste like? Is it sweet, floral, savory, chemical or bland? Does the flavor differ once its cooked?
  • Aroma: Aside from alcohol, what does the vanilla smell like? Is the scent pleasant, or fake? Does the aroma come through after baking?
  • Availability: Is this vanilla easy to pick up at any grocery store, or does it require a special trip to source?

Our Top Picks at a Glance:

  1. Best Overall: Penzeys Single Strength Vanilla Extract
  2. Best Value: Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract
  3. Best for Baking: Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Extract
  4. Best for Using Raw: Singing Dog Pure Vanilla Extract
  5. Best with Beans: Heilala Alcohol-Free Pure Vanilla with Seeds
  6. Best for Beginners: Watkins Organic Pure Vanilla Extract
  7. Best Fair-Trade: Beyond Good Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract
  8. Best for Gifting: Spice House Madagascar Pure Vanilla Extract
  9. Best for a Nostalgic Flavor: McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract

RELATED: From Fluffy Cupcakes to Decadent Pies, These 25 Vanilla Desserts Are Anything but Boring

The 9 Best Vanilla Extracts for Every Baking Need

best vanilla extract Penzeys Single Strength Vanilla
Katherine Gillen

1. Penzeys Single Strength Vanilla

Best Overall

  • Value: 20/20
  • Quality: 20/20
  • Flavor: 19/20
  • Aroma: 20/20
  • Availability: 15/20

TOTAL: 94/100

If I could only bake with one vanilla extract, I would choose Penzeys Single Strength. The extract, made from Madagascar beans, has a sweet, floral aroma straight from the bottle that carries over even after cooking. In cupcake form, it was sweet and almost caramelly, and as a frosting flavoring, it reminded me of a bakery cake (but not in an artificial way). The only downside? You’ll have to buy it online or visit a Penzeys store.

Pros

  • Aromatic in the bottle and after baking
  • Floral but not overwhelming
  • 10 percent stronger than supermarket extracts (per the brand)

Cons

  • Only available online or in Penzeys stores

Buy it ($15.95 for 2 ounces)

best vanilla extract Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract
Katherine Gillen

2. Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract

Best Value

  • Value: 18/20
  • Quality: 18/20
  • Flavor: 16/20
  • Aroma: 16/20
  • Availability: 17/20

TOTAL: 85/100

While $4.99 per ounce sounds like a lot, Simply Organic’s eight-ounce bottle of vanilla extract is actually pretty good bang for your buck, especially considering the taste compared to high-end options. It’s not quite as flavorful as our top pick, but if you go through a lot of vanilla, it’s a smart choice.

Pros

  • Good value per ounce if you buy in large format
  • Subtle but pleasing vanilla taste
  • Available at supermarkets and online

Cons

  • Flavor and aroma aren’t as strong as higher-end brands

Buy it ($39.99 for 8 ounces)

best vanilla extract Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract
Katherine Gillen

3. Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Extract

Best for Baking

  • Value: 18/20
  • Quality: 19/20
  • Flavor: 19/20
  • Aroma: 20/20
  • Availability: 16/20

TOTAL: 92/100

Confession: I grew up spoiled, fed treats made with Nielsen-Massey vanilla by my star-baker mom. But after comparing it to other options, I understand why. It has an incredible floral aroma that shines through even after baking, and you can tell it’s quality from the taste alone. If you use vanilla primarily for cookies, cakes and anything baked, this one will impress. I’ve only seen it in grocery stores a handful of times, but it’s easily purchased through Amazon.

Pros

  • Elegant floral aroma and rich, creamy flavor
  • Holds up in baking
  • Available in bottles from 2 to 32 ounces

Cons

  • Not easy to find in stores

Buy it ($14.95 for 2 ounces)

best vanilla extract Heilala Alcohol Free Pure Vanilla with Seeds
Katherine Gillen

4. Singing Dog Pure Vanilla Extract

Best for Using Raw

  • Value: 19/20
  • Quality: 19/20
  • Flavor: 18/20
  • Aroma: 18/20
  • Availability: 15/20

TOTAL: 89/100

On first whiff, I expected Singing Dog vanilla extract to be lacking in flavor—the aromas are super mild in-bottle. But I was pleasantly surprised in the buttercream round when I tasted its subtle floral notes and classic vanilla flavor. Bonus: It’s fair-trade, extracted and bottled in allergen-free facilities, and Singing Dog’s farmers share in the profits from sales.

Pros

  • High quality at a slightly lower price
  • Subtle but pleasant vanilla flavor in raw applications

Cons

  • Not available in common supermarkets
  • Flavor isn’t as noticeable in baked goods

Buy it ($9.29 for 2 ounces)

best vanilla extract heilala alcohol free pure vanilla with seeds
Katherine Gillen

5. Heilala Alcohol-Free Pure Vanilla with Seeds

Best with Beans

  • Value: 16/20
  • Quality: 19/20
  • Flavor: 17/20
  • Aroma: 16/20
  • Availability: 16/20

TOTAL: 84/100

Full disclosure, although I ordered Heilala’s pure vanilla extract, Amazon sent me the brand’s alcohol-free pure vanilla with seeds (insert confused emoji). But I wasn’t about to let that stop me from tasting it. The added seeds were visually pleasing, and the flavor was sweet and mild, but not as pronounced as our top pick.

Pros

  • Beans are visually appealing
  • Has a classic vanilla taste

Cons

  • Flavor isn’t super strong

Buy it ($22.72 for 1.69 ounces)

best vanilla extract watkins organic pure vanilla extract
Katherine Gillen

6. Watkins Organic Pure Vanilla Extract

Best for Beginners

  • Value: 17/20
  • Quality: 16/20
  • Flavor: 16/20
  • Aroma: 14/20
  • Availability: 18/20

TOTAL: 81/100

If you’re a novice baker, shelling out a ton of money for any ingredient can be scary. (Mistakes happen, even if you’re a pro.) But you can still find good-quality vanilla extract at a reasonable price. Watkins’s extract had a pleasant, classic vanilla flavor in both my tests, but I didn’t love the almost savory aroma out of the bottle.

Pros

  • Less expensive but not low-quality
  • Classic, familiar vanilla flavor

Cons

  • Savory aroma was slightly off-putting

Buy it ($10.99 for 2 ounces)

best vanilla extract Beyond Good Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract
Katherine Gillen

7. Beyond Good Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract

Best Fair Trade

  • Value: 17/20
  • Quality: 18/20
  • Flavor: 17/20
  • Aroma: 16/20
  • Availability: 16/20

TOTAL: 84/100

Knowing how labor-intensive it is to produce vanilla extract, I appreciated Beyond Good’s transparency as a brand as much as the quality of their product. This vanilla had a good balance of sweet and savory flavor, with a distinct nuttiness I didn’t taste in any of the other extracts. The only downside? The aroma was a little bland.

Pros

  • Brand transparency and sustainability
  • Sweet, nutty flavor
  • Reasonable price

Cons

  • Aroma wasn’t very strong
  • Not widely available in supermarkets

Buy it ($11.99 for 2 ounces)

best vanilla extract spice house pure madagascar vanilla extract
Katherine Gillen

8. Spice House Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract

Best for Gifting

  • Value: 18/20
  • Quality: 18/20
  • Flavor: 18/20
  • Aroma: 17/20
  • Availability: 16/20

TOTAL: 87/100

Everyone knows someone who’s obsessed with baking, and this Spice House vanilla extract would make a sweet gift. It’s high-quality but not cost-prohibitive, and the brand carries Mexican and Tahitian vanillas that would pair nicely in a set. The flavor of this vanilla was sweet and floral with a hint of bourbon, like the best slice of bakery birthday cake.

Pros

  • Sweet flavor reminiscent of a bakery treat
  • Brand also carries Tahitian and Mexican vanillas

Cons

  • Not available in small bottles
  • Only available online and in Spice House stores

Buy it ($25.99 for 4 ounces)

best vanilla extract McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract
Katherine Gillen

9. McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract

Best for a Nostalgic Flavor

  • Value: 17/20
  • Quality: 16/20
  • Flavor: 17/20
  • Aroma: 17/20
  • Availability: 20/20

TOTAL: 87/100

Aside from being available in almost any grocery store, I loved that McCormick tasted like childhood—it’s all confetti cake and licking the frosting from the beaters with this bottle. It was borderline artificial tasting (but in a good) way, and the rich, creamy notes shined in my cupcake taste. However, those same flavors made it a little too cloying in my frosting test.

Pros

  • Strong, rich, classic vanilla flavor holds up in baking
  • Widely available and affordable

Cons

  • Can seem artificial at first taste

Buy it ($8.59 for 2 ounces)

RELATED: The 13 Best Yellow Cake Mixes, Because You Deserve an Epic Birthday Cake

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