Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla native to Mexico and is used widely in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy. Pure vanilla beans are probably the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to the extensive labor required to grow the vanilla seed pods.
There are 4 major cultivars of vanilla.
1. Bourbon vanilla – Most widely available. Also known as bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, referring to vanilla produced from the Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, the Comoros, and Reunion.
2. Mexican vanilla - Much less in quantity and marketed as vanilla from the land of its origin.
3. Tahitian vanilla – Lesser in quantity than Mexican vanilla and refers to vanilla from the French Polynesia.
4. West Indian vanilla – Refer to vanilla grown in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
There are 3 main market forms of vanilla – whole pods, powder and extract (includes both pure extract and imitation extract). Seeds from whole vanilla beans have the most intense vanilla flavor. Next up are the pure vanilla extracts and then the imitation extract. This hierarchy also applies to the cost of the vanilla.
When using vanilla to add flavor to your dish, no matter what your budget, please always choose nothing less than a natural vanilla extract. Just in case you are not aware, imitation vanilla is made from artificial flavorings, most of which come from wood byproducts (e.g. wastes from paper mills) and often contain chemicals. It has a bitter aftertaste and who knows what else it will do to your body after prolonged use. There are also products on the market called “Vanilla Flavoring”. This is a combination of imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract.
Be nice to yourself and your guests and use at least a bourbon vanilla, which is by the way very budget friendly already. But if you ever get a chance, have a taste of the Tahitian Vanilla. It's an absolutely wonderful creation from Mother Nature!