Vanilla is a magical spice that is almost universally known. However, it’s also a spice that is available to buy in several forms, some significantly better than others. In my opinion the best balance of flavor, convenience and cost effectiveness is vanilla bean paste (pictured).
Vanilla Beans Although these beasties are expensive ($15 NZD for 3 pods) they have an immense flavor that can be imparted to special meals. There are a couple of ways I still use these over my preferred vanilla bean paste. First, when I am making something special like Crème brûlée, I use beans to flavor the milk and cream. I add the vanilla to the milk and cream the night before making the Crème brûlée so they have enough time to impart flavor. Split the beans lengthwise and scrape the seeds from inside the pods by using a knife perpendicular to the pod and scraping along the length of the pod. Add both the seeds and the pods to the milk and pick the pods out the next day before making the Crème brûlée. Second, I tuck them whole into a jar of sugar and let them impart their flavor over a month or more. This sugar is perfect for making pavlova, meringues or macaroons.
Vanilla Paste A lot cheaper to purchase than beans, but still more expensive than the liquid vanilla forms. You can pay anything from $10-$40 NZD a jar and they usually work out about $2 per tsp/bean equivalent. The paste has way more flavor than the liquid forms and has the added bonus of the seeds, which look great in food. I use this almost everywhere I can’t justify the cost of whole beans.
Natural Vanilla Extract This is a liquid form that retails for around $5 NZD. It is an acceptable form of vanilla that is very useful for cakes and confection. However, it is important not to confuse this product with artificial or imitation vanilla which is commonly also branded as vanilla extract. If you are finding the labels confusing look for the price difference – a small bottle of artificial vanilla (it also comes in big plastic bottles) will retail for around $1.50 NZD. Just like maple syrup, once you start using the real thing the imitation becomes unpalatable.