Vanilla lovers may want to rethink their holiday dessert this year

With prices as high as $20 for an 8-ounce bottle in Wichita, cookie baking with pure vanilla will cost you more if you don’t already have vanilla in your cupboard. (Video by Candi Bolden)
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With prices as high as $20 for an 8-ounce bottle in Wichita, cookie baking with pure vanilla will cost you more if you don’t already have vanilla in your cupboard. (Video by Candi Bolden)

Food & Drink

Here’s why those Christmas cookies could cost more this year.

By Kaitlyn Alanis

December 12, 2017 09:59 AM

Whether your Christmas cookies are shaped like snowmen or stockings, you can expect to pay quite a bit more for pure vanilla extract this holiday baking season.

Stroll through the grocery store and you will see that vanilla extract is more expensive than last year and more than double the cost of imitation vanilla, or vanilla flavoring, with prices as high as $20 for an 8-ounce bottle in Wichita.

Cookie baker Tim Smith immediately noticed when the price for pure vanilla extract went up in March. Prices have continued to rise through the end of the year.

As owner and baker of The Cookie Guy, he buys a lot of vanilla.

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He used to buy a 16-ounce bottle of vanilla extract for about $6. Now, a bottle half the size will cost him about $20.

“It’s a substantial difference in price,” Smith said. “I absolutely noticed it right away.”

Vanilla extract prices have not been this high since a nationwide spike in 2004, according to a report by Eater.

Why is vanilla so expensive?

Prices for vanilla began rising after a cyclone hit Madagascar – the world’s largest producer of vanilla – and destroyed thousands of vanilla plants, resulting in a vanilla-pod shortage around the world.

And when Cyclone Enawo wiped out the vanilla crop, the world’s vanilla bean supply dropped dramatically.

“It’s supply and demand,” said Karen Blakeslee, coordinator of K-State Food Science’s Rapid Response Center. “Recovering from that takes a long time, so we’ll be seeing those higher prices for awhile since growing vanilla is both time and labor intensive. That’s just the reality of it.”

Vanilla bean prices are expected to begin stabilizing. The 2017 crop is better than last year’s crop. But people can still expect to pay high prices for natural vanilla flavor, according to a Dec. 4 report from vanilla supplier Aust & Hachmann.

How about vanilla flavoring?

When you see that you can buy an 8-ounce bottle of imitation vanilla flavor for less than a dollar or a 2-ounce bottle of pure vanilla extract for $8, you might be tempted to use artificial vanilla in your favorite cookie recipe.

While the high prices of pure vanilla have cut Smith’s bottom line, he said he would never switch to imitation vanilla. Vanilla extract is derived from vanilla beans, but imitation vanilla is often extracted from wood pulp.

“You notice a better cookie when you use a better vanilla,” he said. “Vanilla extract is a dramatically different product – profoundly different.”

However, Smith said, if you’re baking from a recipe where vanilla is not meant to be the strongest flavor, there is no reason to pay for an expensive brand of vanilla, as long as what you buy doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners.

“The best thing I can say is make sure there’s no sweetener in the vanilla,” he said. “If they are doing that, then they are cheapening it and you won’t get the taste you want. Just don’t go with expensive stuff unless you need that taste.”

He said most people will not notice a difference in what vanilla is used, so there is no reason to pay more for a simpler recipe.

Likewise, Blakeslee said she does not recommend buying an expensive vanilla unless you are making something with just a few ingredients, such as a creme brulee or whipped cream, where the vanilla flavor is prominent.

“If you want to save some money, I would suggest using imitation vanilla in baked goods,” she said. “You’d hardly know a difference between the two vanillas in cookies and cakes because of all the flavors that kind of water down vanilla a little bit.”

Chef John Michael with Butler Culinary Arts confirmed that imitation vanilla will taste just as great if the vanilla flavor is playing a supportive role in the recipe, like when it’s paired with chocolate.

And while the type of vanilla can be interchanged in your recipes, he said there still is a difference between vanilla extract and vanilla flavor.

“Real vanilla has a more rounded nuanced character,” Michael said. “Think of it in the same way you would coffee or wine. The difference between Folger’s and Reverie, the difference between Franzia and Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.

“To reiterate, imitation vanilla should be fine for most Christmas recipes where vanilla is not the primary flavor of the dish,” he said.

Kaitlyn Alanis: 316-269-6708, @kaitlynalanis