Most people are mainly familiar with the extract form of vanilla, but extract is just one of many forms in which gourmet vanilla is available. Each form is best for different uses, but in the end the most important factor is your own personal taste.
Vanilla Beans: These exotic, straight-from-the-orchid fruits, once a rare curiosity and still hard to find in most markets, are gaining in popularity. This is thanks in large part to the internet, which makes it possible for people in every locality to purchase vanilla beans and discover their spectacular flavor. Many recipes call for splitting and scraping the seeds from a vanilla bean, but the pod itself contains a lot of flavor and can be used to enhance beverages, add a vanilla taste to sugar, etc.
Vanilla Extract: this is without a doubt the most common and widely used form of vanilla. The cheapest and most readily available type is imitation vanilla extract, which has nothing to do with any part of the vanilla bean but is instead made from an artificial substance known as Lignin Vanillin, which is chemically treated to resemble the characteristic flavor and aroma of vanilla.
Gourmet vanilla extract is made by chopping and brewing hand-harvested vanilla beans with a combination of ethyl alcohol and water, then aging it to dark, robust perfection.
It works well both in cooked or baked foods and in cold foods or beverages. How well a particular extract performs in a particular dish has a lot to do with the type of beans that were used to produce it; Indonesian vanilla holds up well to heat and is a good choice for foods that are cooked for a long time, or at high temperatures. Bourbon vanilla, grown mostly in Madagascar and some other tropical regions, is a good general choice for any type of use. Mexican vanilla doesn’t need heat to release its full flavor and is an excellent choice for foods that are eaten unheated.
Natural Vanilla Flavor: this product is very similar to gourmet vanilla extract, but it is produced without the use of alcohol. It tends to be somewhat less intense than gourmet vanilla extract, and its texture is somewhat heavier. Its taste is similar to that of gourmet vanilla extract, but it may leave a slight aftertaste, particularly when used in cold beverages or uncooked foods.
Vanilla Paste: Most consumers and home cooks are unfamiliar with vanilla paste, which is a sweet, intensely-flavored concentrate of vanilla extract and solids, particularly the tiny, flavorful vanilla seeds. Vanilla paste is used in commercial kitchens to add flavor without adding extra liquid.
Vanilla Powder: More common in Europe than the US, vanilla powder is a mixture of sugar (in the form of dextrose or sucrose) and vanilla extract. Though some vanilla powders are natural, many use synthetic vanilla flavoring so be sure to read the label carefully if you’re interested in true gourmet vanilla. These powders are useful for adding to cold beverages or sprinkling over hot foods for a combination of sweetness and flavor.