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Understanding the Difference in Grades of Vanilla Beans

Kindi Lantz August 02, 2018

How to Choose Between The Different Grades of Vanilla Beans

Imagine that you’ve just come across the most spectacular cookbook. It’s chock full of mouthwatering recipes including one of your favorite ingredients—vanilla. You pick out a handful of recipes you want to try and go online to order your vanilla beans. When you click over to the sales page, however, you discover that there are several varieties and growing regions of beans. Furthermore, you have to make a decision between different grades of vanilla beans. All of a sudden, the excitement of the new cookbook fades and is replaced with overwhelm as you wonder, “is one bean better than another for different recipes?”

I won’t make you wonder any longer. The answer is, “yes”. The different grades of vanilla beans are each optimal for different uses. Though, in a pinch, they can be swapped out.

What exactly is the difference between Grade A vanilla beans and Grade B vanilla beans and why aren’t they all suitable for all recipes? I’m glad you asked.

There are two key differences between the different grades of vanilla beans:

  1. Moisture
  2. Appearance

Let's dive in a bit deeper into these key differences.

Grade A beans are often referred to as ‘gourmet’ or ‘prime’ vanilla beans. They have a much higher moisture content than Grade B, or ‘extraction grade’ vanilla beans. As such, the flavor is going to be more diluted in a gourmet bean but it won’t take nearly as long to transfer flavor to the dish.

As the name suggests, the extraction grade vanilla beans are often used to make vanilla extract. The reason for this is due to a much lower moisture content, which aids in a highly concentrated vanilla flavor. So, ounce-for-ounce, one will get much more of that sweet and earthy flavor from Grade B vanilla beans—but that’s only if it is steeped in some sort of liquid for the long haul.

Top chefs usually prefer a Grade A vanilla bean in their cooking because the higher moisture content allows the vanilla flavor to seep into the dish quickly. Put simply, the gourmet vanilla beans give up their flavor more readily than extraction grade beans. So, whether you are making a savory cream sauce, like this Vanilla Saffron Sauce, or a sweet treat, like this Gingerbread Cake with Vanilla Bean Frosting, Grade A beans are going to be your best choice for quickly infusing flavor into a dish.

But, how can one tell the difference between the two grades of vanilla beans by simply looking at them?

Put simply, Grade A beans are the more attractive of the two—at least in the sense that they are free from imperfections. They are dark, chocolatey brown in color and may exude reddish hues on occasion. They are mostly uniform in size (longer than extraction grade) and visibly oily. They are also plump due to the moisture level, which is usually around 30% or more. Because of the high moisture level, they tend to be more pliable.

Grade B beans, on the other hand, are skinny and are dry to the touch. They usually appear to be reddish-brown and will not likely have an oily sheen on the pod. Their moisture level is usually around 20%. Because they are so dry, they are more likely to split or crack if you try to bend them. Beans with imperfections are almost always deemed Grade B—whether they are split, cracked, or sunburnt.

The monikers of the different grades of vanilla beans can be deceiving. Grade A or Gourmet might sound more appealing but it isn’t necessarily the better choice. Always consider what you’re making and the time available for infusion.

Now that you’re equipped with knowledge of the qualities of each bean, you are prepared to start trying out new recipes with the darling of the realm of spices—vanilla.

Based on this new knowledge, which grade of vanilla bean will you be using and what do you plan to make with them?