The choice between buying vanilla beans or vanilla extract ultimately depends on personal preference and the specific use case. However, some factors to consider when making your decision are:
Flavour: Whole vanilla beans have the most intense and complex vanilla flavour, as they contain both the seeds and the pods, which contain a variety of flavour compounds. Extracts and pastes, on the other hand, typically only contain the flavour compounds found in the seeds. Whole vanilla beans also have a more natural, subtle and less alcohol-forward flavour compared to extract.
Versatility: Whole vanilla beans can be used in a wider range of recipes, including savoury dishes as well as desserts. Extracts and pastes are more commonly used in sweet dishes, and may not be suitable for savoury recipes.
Reusability: Whole vanilla beans can be reused several times. After scraping out the seeds, the pod can be used to infuse the flavour in liquids like syrups, custards, cream, or even in a beer. Vanilla extract or paste can only be used once.
Cost: Whole vanilla beans are often less expensive per unit of vanilla flavour than extract or paste. Extract and paste contain water or alcohol, which adds to the overall cost of the product. With whole vanilla beans, you are only paying for the vanilla pods themselves.
Quality: Vanilla beans are graded based on a number of factors, including size, moisture content, and aroma, with A-Grade beans being considered the highest quality. Lower-grade vanilla beans may be used in the production of vanilla extract, which could result in a lower quality extract.
Aesthetics: Whole vanilla beans can be used as a garnish, adding both flavour and a visual appeal to your dish.
Environmental impact: Whole vanilla beans can be a more sustainable and carbon neutral option than extract, as they don't require transportation of extra water and alcohol, require less packaging and can be sourced from local or regional sources.
In summary, if you want a stronger, more complex and natural vanilla flavour, versatility, reusability, cost-effectiveness and a more environmentally friendly option, vanilla beans would be the better choice. If you're looking for a more convenient option, and a specific recipe calls for extract or paste, then it would be the better choice.