There are so many options when it comes to vanilla - whole pods, extracts and pastes. On top of that, there are different varieties of vanilla - Madagascan, Tahitian, Mexican, Hawaiian and Australian, the first three being the most popular. Each variety has it’s own essence and personality. I recommend purchasing a sampler pack of beans and, through smell and taste, see which you prefer; for me, Mexican. Whichever your preference, vanilla beans should be plump, shiny and moist to the touch when fresh. If you buy in bulk, freeze the beans to maintain their freshness. Allow to thaw before using.
The bean, or pod, is the most true form of vanilla. It is fragrant, earthy and elegant. To use, simply split the pod in half (longways) and, with the backside of a paring knife, scrape out the magic seeds that live inside. Seeds can be used anywhere - in a custard base, cookie or cake batter or whipped cream. Never discard the used pods, unless they’ve been steeping in liquid. You can use them to make your own extract or vanilla sugar. I like to roll them in sugar and bake them at a low temperature until firm to use as a garnish.
Vanilla extract comes in handy when you want a more delicate and well-rounded vanilla flavor. Extract is simply beans that have been steeped in an alcohol and water solution. Be sure to use a quality pure or natural brand of extract.
Vanilla Bean Paste is a combination of both the bean and extract. It offers both the earthiness and well-roundedness of their counterparts. A gum is usually added to thicken the paste. Usually used by professionals, it is becoming more regularly available. It can be used interchangeably with vanilla extract.