Updated: Sep 16, 2018
Your recipe calls for vanilla extract, do you go beyond what the recipe calls for and add vanilla bean instead? The answer is YES you can, but first, let's look at what extract really is!
Pure Vanilla Extract - when you purchase extract, it is made from vanilla beans, alcohol (35%) and a small amount of water.
The process is fairly simple to make your own extract at home.
Place 5 - 7 fresh vanilla beans, cut lengthwise and 1 cup of vodka in a glass bottle. Seal. Shake one or twice a week for 8 weeks. Viola! Your own extract!
If you decide you want to see those tiny vanilla beans in your baked goods, and the recipe calls for 1 TSP vanilla, add the beans from a 2" cut piece of a vanilla bean.
1 vanilla bean = 3 TSP of vanilla extract
So when deciding what to use in your next recipe, I think the pure vanilla extract is the easiest and very flavorful option. I would avoid "imitation vanilla", because it is made from guaiacol or lignin. It is synthesized in a lab. From a cost perspective, the extract is a more economical option than using the bean, but its price will fluctuate based on the availability of the vanilla beans season to season.
Beans can only be grown in a very small portion of the world where the weather determines the viability of the crop each year. When storms wiped out the majority of the vanilla crop from Madagascar a few years ago, the price sky-rocketed around the world.
The next question then is ....
How much should I spend on Vanilla Extract?
The brand carried by Williams Sonoma, Nielsen - Massey is $2.25 per ounce, the McCormick brand is only $.82 per ounce. If you are baking with it, you will not notice any discernible taste difference at all, go for the cheaper stuff!