Do You Really Need to Bake with Vanilla Extract?
No — but there are some key caveats.
Additional reporting and testing by Richmond Flores
There are many unofficial 'rules' in baking. Like the fact that vanilla extract belongs in every single recipe. That little brown bottle adds complexity and helps the sugar taste more caramelly-sweet and the butter taste richer. Or does it?
Recently, I noticed that The New York Times’ Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe doesn’t include vanilla extract. Moreover, neither do my two favorite cookies: a treasured family shortbread recipe and a Coconut Oat Cookie from a recent edition of Food Network Magazine. Neither falls short in flavor or texture. All of these observations got me wondering whether or not vanilla extract is necessary in baking. It’s expensive, and considering the frequency it’s used in recipes, those numbers add up. In this story, I methodically examine whether vanilla extract should be a cornerstone of every recipe or saved for recipes where vanilla is meant to be the star.
A little bit about my process. I combed through Food Network’s recipe library in search of three classic candidates to bake side-by-side with and without vanilla extract. I excluded cookies with very bold flavors (like dark chocolate Brownie Cookies, pictured above), as well as recipes that are specifically called vanilla cookies (their identity is centered around vanilla, after all). I settled on classic roll out Sugar Cookies, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and The Best Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. Then I called up my colleague to help out with the baking and tasting, and here is what we found.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
This recipe hits all the notes of a classic chocolate chip cookie. As the batter mixed up, it smelled so familiar before it was time to add any vanilla. Would the brown sugar be enough to carry that caramel-vanilla flavor? There was a difference between the two batches — depending on the bite. If it was a chip-heavy bite, then all was equal, as it was hard to nuance much with a mouthful of chocolate. A bite with more of the plain cookie showed the differences. Without the vanilla, the butter and egg flavor took the forefront with brown sugar in the background rounding them out. With the vanilla, the cookie tasted a bit sweeter and the flavor of the brown sugar took the lead. My taste testers (a.k.a. family members), gobbled up both versions, but were split as to their preference. We straddled the line, enjoying both versions and finding the differences minimal. VERDICT: SKIPPABLE!
These cookies bake up crisp but tender, thanks to cake flour, and they’re sturdy enough for decorations and royal icing, if you’re so inclined. They are not necessarily bold in any particular flavor. Just like, you know, a great sugar cookie. Taste testers were again split, though this time the decision wasn’t as easy. One taster went back and forth before settling on the no vanilla version. Another taster said there was no contest and voted for the vanilla version, explaining that the two cookies didn’t even taste like the same recipe. Ultimately, the nudge went to the batch with the vanilla. The vanilla brought all the other ingredients into harmony, while the batch without? Well, they tasted like something was missing. VERDICT: USE IT!
This iconic cookie was the one that really had us guessing about which version would win out. The recipe has a full tablespoon of vanilla, but also honey, cinnamon, brown sugar, raisins and oats. Would the vanilla really be essential with so many warm deep flavors already in the dough? Right away we noticed the baked cookies looked a bit different: the vanilla-less cookies were a little thicker and spread less, while the ones with vanilla flattened out more. In the batch without vanilla, the individual flavors in the cookie really popped and it was easy to pick out the cinnamon, and especially the honey. The cookies were chewy and the raisins plump. The batch with vanilla tasted sweeter, and although the cookies and raisins were a little drier, they were tastier. The overall cookie flavor was more balanced, and it was clear the vanilla was the key ingredient to bring all the flavors together. Each version had admirable attributes, but ultimately, the version with the vanilla was the winner. It was the flavor glue that held everything together. VERDICT: USE IT!
The Bottom Line
With a freezer full of extra dough, we called an end to the brief but delicious experiment. Vanilla does offer more than just a bit of floral flavor. Sometimes it’s a flavor enhancer and sometimes it’s a flavor balancer. But to be honest, unless it’s a vanilla cookie, it’s not a true dealbreaker. Especially if you’re making cookies that have lots of other flavors going on, like coconut or dark chocolate. Unsurprisingly, all the cookies were delicious, happily enjoyed and will be baked again regardless of how much vanilla is lurking in the cabinet.