What's the difference between grade-A vanilla beans and grade-B vanilla beans? Aren't grade-B vanilla beans better for homemade vanilla extracts? Isn't grade-A more expensive? Should I use grade-A vanilla beans in my DIY vanilla extract?
As with any culinary creation, the answer to each question related to vanilla bean use is, "it depends". Let's begin with definitions.
Grade-A Vanilla Beans
Grade-A beans (often called "gourmet vanilla beans") are visually a more beautiful bean. They are plump, pliable and full of fresh vanilla bean caviar. Their color is dark and chocolate-like, sometimes with hints of red. Their texture is soft due to their higher moisture content that is usually around 30%. They are easily sliced open to remove the caviar for vanilla bean paste, vanilla sugar or any other creation where you want to see those beautiful vanilla speckles. They are rich with vanillin, the natural compound in vanilla that creates the wonderful vanilla smell and taste. Because of their high quality and versatility of use, grade-A vanilla beans are typically more expensive.
Grade-B Vanilla Beans
Grade-B beans are visually less appealing because they are much more dry and brittle. They are susceptible to breaking and cracking. It can be more difficult to scrape the caviar from grade-B vanilla beans, but sometimes you can be fortunate to receive grade-B vanilla that still has moisture and is still able to be sliced and scraped. Moisture content is typically less than 20%. Because they are so dry, the vanillin is sometimes more concentrated when rehydrated, but difficult to smell in its dry state. Because of their extremely dry quality and limited use, grade-B vanilla bean are typically less expensive.
So which grade is best for extract-making?
The FDA has dictated that for vanilla extract to be "pure", it needs to be made from 13.35oz of vanilla beans for every gallon of 35% alcohol. It's the weight of the beans that matters most, not the quantity of the beans themselves. So, if you purchased grade-A vanilla beans, 1oz might include 6-8 beans on average. If you purchased grade-B vanilla beans, 1oz might be more than 20 beans. This is important when you are buying vanilla beans "by the bean" instead of "by the weight". While grade-B is less expensive, you may need to buy twice as many grade-B vanilla beans than grade-A vanilla beans to make your extract.
We know many vanilla extract aficionados that will only use grade-B vanilla beans for their extracts. The belief is that the drier grade-B vanilla bean produces a much more concentrated extract taste. It typically takes a little longer to extract (more than 1 year), but the taste benefit is worth it to them.
We also know many other vanilla extract makers that will only use grade-A vanilla beans. In their experience, you can slice open the vanillin-rich grade-A beans for an extract that is ready much faster. You can still wait more than a year and your grade-A extracts (according to them) are even more concentrated, rich and sweet as extracts made with grade-B vanilla. Then, when the extract is finished, they can harvest the caviar to make other desserts.
What about other uses of grade-A and grade-B vanilla beans?
Because grade-B vanilla beans are often so dry and brittle, their uses are very limited. You can make extracts, you can make vanilla bean powder and vanilla sugar, and not much more.
Grade-A vanilla beans, on the other hand, can be used for everything a grade-B bean is used for, but also anything that calls for fresh vanilla bean caviar or fresh vanilla bean pods.
So, which is best? Well, that's entirely up to you. What has your experience been? We'd love to hear about it so we can post more information to help others learn. Simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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