A drop will do ya, which is why it's so important to use a good one. By Kimberly Holland
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Vanilla is a team player, boosting other flavors and adding depth, character, and roundness. If you forget to add it, you'll know the moment you take a bite.

But for all its behind-the-scenes work, vanilla is also a strong flavor unto itself—sweet, caramel-y, floral, unique. That's why most recipes call for only a small amount—a teaspoon or less of extract to flavor an entire cake or batch of cookies. Too much, and vanilla's perfumy presence overwhelms.

That's what happened in our first tasting; we mixed 1 tablespoon of each of 18 pure vanilla extract contenders into 8 ounces of milk, and the flavor blew testers' tasting circuits. Starting over, we used 1/2 teaspoon whipped with (and mellowed by) sweetened heavy cream, then tested the top four in a stovetop pudding, stirring in at the end to preserve the flavor.

Because so little delivers such big flavor, it's worth investing in a small bottle of pure extract. There's simply no substitute for the complexity of the real thing. To make it, producers steep chopped handpicked vanilla beans in ethyl alcohol (a minimum of 35%, per FDA rules) and leave the blend to age before straining and blending. The longer it sits, the stronger it gets, which sometimes adds a boozy flavor element. Imitation extracts are made from chemicals, with a flavor to match. Just to be sure, we sneaked one into our tasting—testers recognized it immediately.

WINNER: 365 Everyday Value Organic Vanilla Extract, $10.99 (4 oz.) A bouquet of buttery caramel and butterscotch underpinned by subtle floral notes. Lends a smooth flavor to delicate whipped cream and pudding but is still strong enough to stand up to more complex flavors like cardamom, clove, or ginger.

VERY GOOD: McCormick Organic Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract, $8.99 (2 oz.) A classic vanilla with a distinctive, clean essence and nutty, warm aftertaste. At the top of the price range for pure extracts, but it'll be a workhorse in your kitchen year-round.