Have you ever wondered why some vanilla tastes different than others – even when it’s supposedly the same flavor?
Vanilla differs based on the quality and Grade of the bean. This difference can be either subtle or bold, but if you pay attention you’ll definitely taste it. Becoming familiar with the different grades of vanilla beans available to you can help you choose the right grade for your next recipe.
Vanilla is a fruit, not actually a vegetable or a legume. The vanilla bean grows from a special type of orchid that prefers tropical climates with lots of rainfall like the fertile, red sandy loam soil of Madagascar. Other common locations where the vanilla orchid thrives are Mexico, Tahiti, Réunion, Mauritius, Comoros, Indonesia, Uganda, and Tonga. The orchid creates a long, green pod similar to the manner many plants create a large seed, nut, or fruit. This pod is the source of the vanilla bean and the popular vanilla flavor we have come to embrace worldwide.
Fun Fact: There are about 28,000 species of orchids!https://www.kew.org/plants/vanilla
There are about 110 species of vanilla, hence vanilla beans come in many varieties as well. The most common varieties grown for commercial purposes are vanilla planifolia and vanilla tahitensis.
After harvesting, curing, and conditioning, the final product ( vanilla beans) is assigned a grade as well.
The Difference between Grade A vs Grade B Vanilla Beans
Gourmet grade vanilla beans(Grade A) are the more attractive and expensive vanilla beans. These are the type of beans you’d use when scraping the pod for vanilla “caviar”. You also use this grade of vanilla beans when your recipe requires fresh vanilla flavors as grade vanilla beans tend to have a moisture content above 25%.
Grade B vanilla beans will often be a more affordable choice with less moisture (below 25% moisture content) but a more concentrated amount of vanillin per bean. Grade B vanilla beans are popular for extracts and infusions. Unlike grades of meat or poultry, the grades in vanilla beans define the culinary application and do not represent the quality of the bean.
II. Grade A Vanilla Beans
Characteristics of grade A vanilla beans include their higher moisture content, dark oily color, and malleable husk. Madagascar “Bourbon” Grade A vanilla is the creme del a creme of vanilla beans. “Bourbon” vanilla beans are known for their dark brown color and an average length of around 6 inches. The beans will appear fresh, smooth, soft, and flexible. The readily available caviar shows when the beans are slit open.
While all Grade A vanilla beans have a moisture content above 25 percent, this grade can be further split into Grade A-1 and Grade A-2. Grade A-1 beans have a moisture content between 30-35 percent and Grade A-2 has a moisture content between 25-30 percent.
While Grade A vanilla beans are sometimes used for making vanilla extract, they are prized for use in high-end desserts and baked goods. The scraped seeds can also be added directly to dishes and feature as a decorative element of the dish e.g. gourmet pastries or baked goods.
III. Grade B vanilla beans
Grade B vanilla beans are a popular choice among bakers, with the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla beans being the vanilla of choice for commercial extraction. Grade B Madagascar beans can be identified by their dark to light brown and brittle appearance. Each bean is typically 5 to 7 inches long and can produce a highly concentrated vanilla flavor. Variations of Grade B are also found in other vanilla bean species grown in areas such as Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. These different varieties will mirror the more dry and brittle appearance of Madagascar Vanilla beans with the same flavor notes as their Grade A counterparts when used in extracts.
Grade B vanilla beans are a cook’s favorite for homemade vanilla extract. Grade B beans are also favored for infusions and used by brewers for beer such as an orange cream lager or vanilla porter. Grade B beans are frequently chopped up and broken apart to extract the most vanilla flavor or dried some more and ground as vanilla powder.
IV. Other subGrades of vanilla beans
In addition to the standard Grade A and Grade B vanilla beans, sometimes the vanilla pod will split before harvesting. As the bean reaches full maturity it can split open while still green. This split bean rarely reaches consumer shelves but is still usable. In fact, split beans are highly sought after by ice cream manufacturers, due to the extremely high content of vanillin in the split pod. Split beans are very sweet, and will be noticeable by both the split pod and the reddish color of the whole vanilla beans sometimes referred to as “red foxies”.
Other subGrades of vanilla beans include “loose” vanilla beans and “cuts.” Loose vanilla beans sometimes refer to highly split beans or very short pods. Think of these like the misfits of the vanilla bean world as they are shipped in mismatched bundles. Loose beans are typically lower in quality but more affordable.
Cuts refer essentially to vanilla bean scraps. Cuts are basically stunted beans that have had their growth cut off or are maybe short and gummy. If vanilla beans are compared to bunched bananas – the cuts are the little ones that didn’t quite compete with the rest of the bunch. Cuts are difficult to cure, as they can contaminate a quality batch with mold.
V. Choosing the right Grade of vanilla beans
There are many culinary applications of vanilla beans, and as mentioned previously, choosing the right grade bean for the job matters. Many people are familiar with scraping fresh Grade A vanilla pods for baking or cutting up Grade B vanilla beans for extracts, but there are complementary uses to get the most out of your vanilla beans.
Grade A vanilla bean ideas
First, gourmet vanilla beans can be scraped for traditional baking. Next, we can take some of the seeds and dry them for baking recipes that require low moisture like shortbread or peanut brittle. The remaining vanilla husk could be used for recipes like “poached pears, vanilla ice cream, panna cotta.”
Finally, we can save the husk, dry them and use them to make vanilla sugar. They can also be stored in sugar cookie jars for the cookies to absorb the leftover vanilla scent.
Grade B vanilla bean ideas
Grade B pods are no less desired, simply for different uses. These drier vanilla beans can be used as above for things like shortbread. But are a favorite for hot and cold infusions. Drop some Grade B into a syrup like maple, berry, or use it to make coffee extract, vanilla extracts, vanilla syrup, etc. Beyond cold preparations, try infusing these vanilla beans over high heat to create your caramels or sweetened condensed milk.
Vanilla bean storage
Don’t forget proper storage so that you can use your vanilla beans to get the most flavor and aroma. With proper storage, whole vanilla beans can last from 6 months to 3 years. The key is to treat this spice like a fine wine. You need to manage temperature, air, moisture, and light. Store your vanilla beans in an airtight container, in a cool, dark area with limited sunlight.
By better understanding your ingredient, you’ll be able to extract the best flavor and all the value.
Vanilla may be a synonym for simple, but it’s anything but boring. The vanilla bean has a rich history with diverse species, grades, and flavors. Understanding these sub-factors will ensure that you get the most out of your vanilla beans.