Review: Is Trader Joe's Coveted Vanilla Bean Paste Worth The Hunt?

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Some items at Trader Joe's are cult favorites for their originality (like this DIY instant boba kit) or because it's just dang good (looking at you, Mandarin orange chicken). Others are because the grocery store brand is able to use its private label to offer staple products at a steep discount. Among these are their nuts, chocolate, and other baking ingredients. Seasonally available is the vanilla bean paste, a premium product that you can use in place of vanilla extract in almost any recipe or application.

Vanilla bean paste is a pastry chef's secret weapon. This little bottle of magic can dress up the most homespun of baked goods and take ordinary recipes like whipped cream or sugar cookies to the next level. It's cheaper and easier to deal with than fresh vanilla beans but still comes chock-full of those pretty little flecks and plenty of rich vanilla aroma and flavor.

What's in the bottle?

Vanilla bean paste is a like a syrup, made from vanilla beans suspended in liquid inverted sugar, like a stabilized simple syrup. The exact ingredients in this Trader Joe's product are organic sugar, water, organic vanilla extract, organic vanilla bean seeds, and a few thickeners like organic acacia gum and xanthan gum.

Acacia and xanthan gum are harmless thickeners that allow the paste to have the right consistency without needing to be shaken or stirred between uses. According to the bottle, 1 teaspoon has just 4 grams of sugar, so it's not likely to throw the flavor of your dish off. The same teaspoon will contain thousands of little flecks of vanilla bean that distribute evenly into whatever recipe you add it to because it's already in a liquid state. It's easier than scraping vanilla bean pods, which can clump together and somehow manage to get everywhere but your mixing bowl.

Cost and availability

Wander around your local Trader Joe's, and you will probably find this product in the baking section, possibly near maple syrup and vanilla extract. As of October 2022, the cost for a bottle of vanilla bean paste is just $4.99 per 2-ounce bottle. Any serious baker knows that it's a steal at this price. Other brands like Nielsen-Massey charge as much as $18.95 (as of October 2022) for a 4-ounce bottle. That's almost double the price ounce-for-ounce.

This product isn't available at Trader Joe's year-round, but it has been popping up the last few years as soon as the holiday items start hitting the shelves in early fall. Sealed, it will stay good for months in your pantry, so feel free to stock up. You can also buy it through a third-party reseller on Amazon, but the upcharge is so high it defeats the purpose of purchasing this product through Trader Joe's at its discounted price.

Nutritional information

Vanilla bean paste is an ingredient and not a snack on its own, so its nutritional content is not exactly a forethought for most bakers. That said, this particular product is fairly low in added sugars (considering it's just sugar syrup with vanilla beans suspended in it). It probably won't be enough to throw off a diet. There are 15 calories in a teaspoon serving, all from sugar, and about 12 servings in one 2-ounce jar.

One teaspoon of this paste can be substituted for an equivalent teaspoon of vanilla extract and vice-versa. One tablespoon of the paste is roughly equivalent to one whole vanilla bean pod, which is usually a couple of bucks, depending on where you shop. This paste has some additives for freshness and consistency, but nothing too concerning. The organic acacia gum and xanthan gum have not been linked to any adverse side effects.

What can you make with vanilla bean paste?

In the baking world, there are so many recipes that call for vanilla, and very few that a small splash wouldn't improve. In general, you can save your precious vanilla bean for things where you know you won't even see the flecks, such as dark chocolate ganache or some other dark-colored pastry. Whipped creams, foams, meringues, pies, cookies, tarts, and even simple bars like brownies and blondies can benefit from the intense aroma and flavor of an added hit of vanilla bean.

Outside of baking, there are plenty more uses for the paste. Fancy coffee drinks are all the rage these days, and you can use vanilla bean paste to make a delicious syrup or cold foam at home. If you really love the taste of the flavoring, you can add it directly to your morning cup of coffee (or use it to make an old-fashioned if you're more of a whisky drinker).

The taste test

The final verdict on this product in terms of taste is that it's good – really good. The vanilla flavor is rich, layered, and floral without tasting like a perfume. There is no astringent alcohol taste that you might be used to with an extract. That's because there's hardly any alcohol in this paste at all (which also makes this a better option for those avoiding alcohol-based additives). The flavor is more like a super-concentrated vanilla syrup. It isn't too rich that you couldn't simply toss this with a bowl of cut strawberries. 

This one doesn't skimp on quality compared to other vanilla bean pastes on the market. There are plenty of vanilla beans per teaspoon, and you don't get the issue of all the beans settling to the bottom of the jar like with some cheaper versions. In all, it's a really great product at a rock-bottom price.

Is Trader Joe's vanilla bean paste worth buying?

Most people know that you should avoid artificial vanilla extract at all costs, but real vanilla extract exists, so is vanilla bean paste really worth buying? Sporadic bakers may not find the paste alternative to be a worthy purchase, especially if you are the kind of person who feels like buying premade cookie dough and throwing it on a baking sheet is considered baking (we're not judging). If, however, you find yourself occasionally breaking out the mixer to whip up a batch of homemade whipped cream or creme brulee, this might be for you.

Serious bakers who already know and love vanilla bean paste will love this great quality option from Trader Joe's for its highly concentrated version that won't water down or wash out your dish. Recipes that can't have liquid added for fear of ruining the consistency (looking at you, meringue) can use the paste instead of extract because the water content is virtually nonexistent.