Food Guy Greg Patent has begun baking with vanillin, a synthetic version of the major compound in vanilla. Why? Because the cost of pure vanilla extract peaked in 2018 above $30.00 per 16-ounce bottle. If you're making custards, sauces or ice cream, Greg says, stick with pure vanilla extract (extracted from from the vanilla pod with alcohol). It'll give you the benefit of the plant's full range of flavors. But most of the subtle aromatic compounds in vanilla just volatilize in the baking process, so when you bake, you might as well save some dough on vanillin.
Why has pure vanilla extract become so expensive? Madagascar, which produces over 75% of the world's commercial-grade vanilla, has been hit with damaging cyclones, and replacement vanilla vines don't begin to flower for several years. Hand-pollinating this orchid's flowers, which bloom for just one day, is costly. (The vanilla orchid is native southeastern Mexico - also the home of its native pollinators.) Curing vanilla pods takes a long time. Demand for vanilla since 2010 has increased faster than supply. And the high price itself - by weight, vanilla is worth about as much as silver - has led to thieves stealing ripe pods from farmers, further disrupting the supply chain.
Greg says of vanilla's price rise and his decision to use vanillin: "It was a wake-up call to me, because I've been such a snob. 'Why would I want to use vanillin?' But now, I've decided it doesn't matter beans if you synthesize it de novo or extract it from products like lignin or petroluem; you're not getting any impurities when you buy vanillin in a bottle."