Vanilla Extract: it is the second most expensive spice, the most expensive spice is saffron. Widely used in baking, it is an important and necessary ingredient. I like to think "vanilla is to baking", as "salt is to cooking": it adds depth, flavor, and sweetness. Different vanilla beans will produce a slightly different tasting vanilla bean. Please, avoid imitation vanilla at all cost, it is fake and unreal. True, real vanilla adds a declicate and full flavor to all baked items.
Why is PURE vanilla extract so expensive? Real vanilla extracts is so expensive becuase of how it is grown and how rare its growing conditions are. It starts with a rare orchid, called the celadon colored orchid (native to central America), which needs to be pollinated by Melipona bees to grow vanilla pods (beans). Once the orchid flower opens up, it must be pollinated by bees or the flower will fall off. Recently, farmers have discovered "hand pollination" to grow vanilla commerically. After pollination, the flowers grow long, green bods/beans, then they are picked the fermentation process begins. The beans are dried out during the day, then wrapped up in towels to "sweat" during the night. This process can range from 2-6 months, depending on the pod. The pods, during this process, start to have a "white crystal frost" on the outside, which is called vanillin. Vanillin is what gives the beans/pods their flavor.
The 3 main types of vanilla beans: 1) Madagascar or Burbon-Madagascar Beans (which are the most common and does not contain any Burbon, despite its name. The name came from the French, who planted their first vine on Isle de Burbon), 2) Mexican Beans (has a rich, darker, smoother taste; Some say it gives the best vanilla taste), and 3) Tahitian (not as rich as the previous two, but has a deep, complex flavor. Also, many vanilla-scented perfumes/lotions are scented with tahitian vanilla).
What is the deal with imitation vanilla extract? Be sure to buy "PURE' vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla extract is made from glycoside, found in certain sapwood of certain confiers or from coal extracts. Items labeled "vanilla flavoring" is a combination of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract.
Vanilla is sold in these forms: beans/pods, extract, powder, and sugar. Vanilla powder are the beans grinded until very fine. Vanilla sugar is when sugar has been "marinating" in vanilla beans. It adds more depth to your regular, plain white sugar.
Vanilla is a flavor that has been tried and true in the pastry world. Think: vanilla cream brulee, French vanilla ice-cream, vanilla cheesecake, and adding vanilla extract to chocolate chip cookies. True vanilla taste is pure, simple, and delicate. Always use pure vanilla extract when baking to bring out the best flavor. Happy Baking!