What are the Differences Between Grade A and Grade B Vanilla Beans
Always a great question, but with many subtle nuances. We'll dig into the basics and some of the not-so-common details. By the end of this post, you should be familiar with not only the difference between the two, but also which grade is right for you!
From a basic standpoint, Grade A vanilla beans are superior in appearance. They are often used in dishes where you want to showcase the vanilla bean itself, along with the flavor it imparts to the culinary delight. The bean is typically left on top of the dish/dessert to show that whole vanilla beans are used. There is the argument that they are superior in flavor as well, but again, that depends on your use. Here are the specs necessary to deem a vanilla bean as Grade A:
• 30-35% moisture content
• Minimum 6"+ in length
• No blemishes, scarring (outside of branding), "red striping", or splits in the bean. Must be uniform brown/black in color.
If any of these criteria are not met, then it is not Grade A vanilla. That brings us to the next grade of vanilla - Grade B also known as "extract grade". It is often preferred for use in extract because it is "cheaper". We'll follow up on that more at the end of this post. The specs for Grade B vanilla are much more broad, but there are still specs. Believe it or not, there is a quality of vanilla far less desirable than Grade B. Here are the specs:
• 12-25% moisture content
• 4"+ in length
• Blemishes and scarring, "red striping" is minimal or abundant, maximum 50% splits.
If you're wondering what "red striping" is and you've never heard of it, it's discoloration of the fibers in the vanilla bean. Instead of being a uniform brown or black color, the fibers lighten to a deep red to as light as a yellow color. This is as a result of being left on the vine for longer periods of time, or part of the curing process.
Of course that begs the question, "what kind of vanilla beans do I need"? We'll list common uses for both grades but note: you can do anything with Grade A vanilla that you would need Grade B for. The same is not true the other way around.
Grade A vanilla is typically used for the following:
• Scraping the vanilla caviar out to add to a dish. This is extremely common for vanilla bean cheesecake, ice cream, and buttercream frostings.
• Cooking to impart flavor. Commonly in custards, creme brulee, and exotic dishes. Often the vanilla bean, or a section of, will be left on top of the final dish.
Grade B, or extract grade, is used for the following:
• Vanilla Extract! The reason being it is the most "economical" way to make vanilla extract. We'll get more into the economics I promise, but the reality is you receive more beans by weight. More beans means a stronger extract from the chief ingredient in vanilla beans, Vanillin.
• Vanilla Powder. We'll dive into vanilla powder and it's uses in another post. Also some "buyer beware" scenarios there. It is the most economical way to make vanilla powder because the beans are already quite dry, so additional drying is minimal. Also, since vanilla beans the world over are sold by weight, little moisture has to be removed to grind into a powder. Less water weight = more bean!
• Vanilla Paste. Same scenario as above including the "buyer beware". Stay tuned for that post.
• Beauty products, novelty candles, supplements, and everything else vanilla. For all the reasons above, you will find that it is the most cost effective way to go.
As we've shown, vanilla beans have many uses. Most often, Grade B is used. There is an unofficial grade of vanilla that is used for most of the above uses. It's referred to by some as Grade C, or manufacturers grade. These are most often vanilla beans that do not fall into any of the other two grades. Here's a list of vanilla beans that have a wide array of characteristics:
• 8-15% moisture content
• 2-4" in length
• Primarily split, broken, dry, skinny beans
• Come in a variety of colors from light brown to multi-colored (reddish, yellowed, brown striping effects).
I'm sure you're wondering why those aren't the most commonly used. They are certainly economical (they can go for a 1/3 of the price of most vanilla). The reason being that the beans are classified as lacking potency. The beans can be very old or were harvested before they matured. They may lack the vanillin content or have gotten so dry, many of the natural oils and flavors have left the bean. For extract, they may have very little color change. Be warned though, there are distributors that will try and sell products or even the beans themselves to the general public.
Alright, a promise is a promise. Let's get to the economics!
All vanilla is purchased by weight. I know I've said that. In the US though, there has been a consistent sweeping trend of end consumer purchasing by the bean. This has exposed many buyers to questionable practices by suppliers and distributors determined to capitalize on the uneducated and misinformed.
That being said, Grade A and Grade B vanilla cost the exact same by weight. You're probably wondering why Grade A vanilla costs more then. Grade A typically has ~100-120 beans per lb. Grade B is roughly ~140-160 beans per lb. The biggest reasoning being that Grade A are typically longer and have more moisture.
The price should always be commensurate with the weight. I will be the first to point out though, that isn't always the case. The vast majority of suppliers will sell Grade A at a premium to generate more revenue. When purchasing vanilla beans, do not be afraid to ask questions. Any reputable supplier will be able to answer, and happy, to answer those questions. If you get shady answers or no reply at all, run away! Asking questions like the weight of x amount of beans you are trying to purchase. Good rule of thumb per 10 beans for Grade A is 1.4-1.6 oz. Grade B should be 1.0-1.2 oz. Believe me when I tell you while doing product research from other suppliers, we've received 10 beans often that were 0.6 oz. with an ASTRONOMICAL price tag.