One would assume that Grade A is a superior bean and Grade B is its less popular cousin. Interestingly, it doesn't work like that with vanilla grading.
Vanilla beans are graded on moisture content and appearance and have different roles in the culinary world. Grade A beans may be better looking and give up their flavour more graciously, but Grade B beans can pack a bigger flavor punch.
Grade A beans are known as gourmet beans and are prized culinary gems. They’re soft, plump, fleshy, pliable, and contain more seed pulp, known as vanilla caviar. Bakers and chefs prefer gourmet beans because they have a higher water and oil content; the vanillin seeps out the seeds quickly, and the pods give up their rich, full-bodied sweet flavour more readily.
Grade B beans are known as extract beans and are mainly used for - you guessed it - the commercial production of vanilla extract, hence the name. They have less than twenty percent water content, which gives them a dry, brittle and cracked appearance. Grade B beans contain very little vanilla caviar, and what little they have is difficult to scrape out.
What makes Grade B beans worth their weight in gold is they have a more robust vanilla flavour because they are so dry and the vanillin is highly concentrated. They may not look plump and pretty but they’re the best beans to pick if you’re making homemade extract or vanilla-infused vodka for delicious cocktails.
Extract beans are typically used by bakers and chefs to make homemade vanilla paste, sugar and powder. Gourmet beans are pricey, so few people use them to make homemade vanilla extract.
You can tell the difference between a quality Grade A bean from a Grade B bean by giving them a squeeze. Gourmet beans are soft, squishy and bendy enough to twist in a knot. They are also oily and leave a slimy residue on your fingers when you handle them. Extract beans feel like stiff, charred twigs.
Extract-grade beans are less expensive than gourmet beans and it’s tempting to use them for baking and cooking, but don’t waste your money because they have little to offer without the help of time and alcohol. They’re certainly not suitable for short- or no-baking recipes because they take too long to work their magic.
To sum it up, the grade you choose depends on what you're making. Grade A gourmet beans cost a pretty penny, but they deliver the best vanilla value for sweet and savoury dishes. Grade B extract beans are not the prettiest looking things, but they're crammed full of flavour and perfect if you're making homemade vanilla extract, paste, sugar or powder.