Q. Is there really a big difference between imitation vanilla and real vanilla?
A. Well, if you've never tasted the real thing or never paid sufficient attention to learn the difference, you could probably use the imitation, although some people detect a bitterness to the imitation flavoring.
In most cooking, very little vanilla is used, especially when in baked goods that are not predominately vanilla in flavor; in these products, vanilla adds a background flavor only, and it might not make much difference whether it's real or imitation.
In foods in which vanilla is the predominant flavor, we recommend real vanilla. In these products, you want true vanilla flavor.
Real vanilla is expensive because it takes years for the plants to produce pods, and cultivation is labor-intensive. Imitation vanilla is a byproduct of the paper industry or is derived from coal tar.
Some cooks report that it takes at least twice the amount of imitation vanilla to equal the taste of real vanilla, so you might not be saving as much money as you think by using the imitation.