All About Trader Joe’s Vanilla Extracts and Pastes

Three of Trader Joe's vanilla products on a quartz kitchen counter with the overlay "Comparing Trader Joe's Vanilla Extracts & Pastes."

If you’re both a baker and Trader Joe’s lover, you’ve probably wondered what the differences are between the various Trader Joe’s vanilla offerings! The grocery store sells organic pure Bourbon vanilla extract, Bourbon vanilla bean paste, and organic vanilla bean paste, along with an alcohol-free vanilla flavoring. All of these are great ways to add vanilla flavor, but there are a few tricks to getting the most out of your favorite vanilla product.

I love getting my vanilla from Trader Joe’s, because they have some of most reasonably priced vanilla bean paste on the market. It makes this premium ingredient far more accessible to the average baker! But if you’ve never used it, you may not know the best way to use Trader Joe’s vanilla bean pastes over traditional vanilla extract. (I say “the best way” lightly—you’re welcome to use TJ’s vanilla bean paste as you please!)

But first, let me get into the difference between vanilla bean paste and vanilla extract!

What’s the Difference between Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Bean Paste?

Vanilla extract is made by soaking cured vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol until the alcohol absorbs the essential oils out of the vanilla bean. The process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the temperature the manufacturer uses for the extraction process. Trader Joe’s vanilla extract is made via cold extraction, which preserves the delicate notes you would otherwise lose via heated extraction.

Vanilla bean paste is made of a sugar syrup, vanilla extract, vanilla beans, and thickeners like acacia and xanthan gum. The syrup and thickeners help to suspend the vanilla beans evenly throughout the container; otherwise, they would all sink to the bottom.

Vanilla bean paste can be used as a 1:1 substitution for vanilla extract. It has a slightly stronger vanilla flavor due to both the extract and beans, so the paste is best used in applications where you’ll be able to taste the difference. Think custards, ice creams, and frostings, where you don’t lose all the nuances of the vanilla bean due to high temperatures in the oven.

Then What Is Trader Joe’s Organic Alcohol-Free Pure Vanilla Flavor?

Trader Joe’s alcohol-free vanilla is a glycerin-based product. You use it in the same way as extract, but it’s completely free of alcohol. It’s a great option if you’re looking for real vanilla flavor but can’t use extract due to the alcohol content.

The alcohol-free vanilla is made from real vanilla bean extractives rather than artificial vanillin, so you still get that classic vanilla flavor. I personally haven’t used it, but it’s a great option to have available, especially for those with alcohol sensitivities!

Three Trader Joe's vanilla products side by side, with product in coffee spoons.
Three of Trader Joe’s vanilla products side-by-side.
From left to right: organic vanilla bean paste, Bourbon vanilla bean paste, and organic pure Bourbon vanilla extract.

Is There Whiskey in Trader Joe’s Bourbon Vanilla?

People online often ask if TJ’s Bourbon vanilla tastes like whiskey. But no, Bourbon vanilla extract does not have a strong whiskey flavor—there is no bourbon whiskey in Trader Joe’s vanilla!

“Bourbon” in this case refers to the kind of vanilla, not the alcohol, used to make the extract. The region where the vanilla beans grew (now the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros) was originally named after the French Bourbon dynasty, hence “Bourbon vanilla.”

The beans for Trader Joe’s Bourbon vanilla are grown on the island of Réunion; the beans in the organic vanilla bean paste are grown on the neighboring island of Madagascar. They both have fairly similar flavor profiles but different notes.

I’ve found the flavor of the Bourbon vanilla to be richer and a little more smoky than Costco’s pure vanilla extract, which does not specify bean origin. This could be due to Trader Joe’s cold extraction process: Heated extraction (the cheaper option) destroys some of those delicate flavor nuances, while cold extraction preserves them. Those delicate notes tend to bake out around 300°F or 150°C, however, so the flavor is best appreciated in unbaked goods.

That said, you may still have to show an ID to purchase Bourbon vanilla extract. The cashier carded me in central California when I last bought it, probably because of the 35% ABV.

Trader Joe’s Organic Pure Bourbon Vanilla Extract

The 4-oz (118 ml) glass bottle of Bourbon vanilla extract retails for $10.99 and is made from Bourbon vanilla beans from the island of Réunion (not bourbon whiskey). It’s certified organic and has slightly oaky, almost spiced notes with only a mildly alcoholic scent.

To make things confusing, the flavor of the Bourbon vanilla extract does have some notes reminiscent of bourbon whiskey. Those nuances practically disappear once baked, though, so don’t be worried to use a teaspoon of this extract in a batch of cupcakes for your little ones! It’ll just taste like vanilla once baked.

How to Use Trader Joe’s Bourbon Vanilla Extract

Like all vanilla extracts, Trader Joe’s Bourbon vanilla extract is good anywhere you’d like a little bit of vanilla flavor: Baked goods, frostings, smoothies, custards, iced drinks, etc. I much prefer to use extract in my baked goods like cakes, pies, granola, and cookies. You’ll be able to taste the more delicate nuances in iced coffee or tea drinks, cocktails, or milkshakes without having seeds piled at the bottom.

My favorite recipes to make with this extract are mini cherry pies, lavender chocolate chip cookies, vanilla almond granola, and white chocolate pomegranate layer cake. These are all recipes where vanilla extract adds a pleasant flavor but doesn’t need to be the star of the show.

An unopened bottle of Trader Joe's Organic Pure Bourbon Vanilla Extract.
Trader Joe’s Organic Pure Bourbon Vanilla Extract has a strong vanilla scent and mild notes of smokiness that fade once baked.

Trader Joe’s Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste

This 4-oz (113 g) glass jar of Bourbon vanilla bean paste retails for $4.99. Just like the extract, it’s made from Bourbon vanilla beans from the island of Réunion and ethyl alcohol, not whiskey. Interestingly, the paste is not certified organic, even though the extract—made with the same vanilla beans—is.

Much like the extract, the Bourbon vanilla bean paste has a mildly oaky undernote. With only xanthan gum as a thickener, the paste acts more like a syrup: It’s thinner and more elastic than other pastes on the market. This makes quickly pouring a dollop into your whipped cream or yogurt a little messy, as long strings of paste can hang onto your spoon or the side of the jar.

There also appear to be fewer vanilla beans per teaspoon than others on the market (even compared to TJ’s organic vanilla bean paste). That combined with the lighter color of the syrup results in a fairly mild vanilla flavor. That’s a good thing if you don’t want to change the color of your buttercream too much and also likely why it’s so affordable. There’s still good flavor, but it’s not overwhelming or overpowering by any means.

Trader Joe's Bourbon vanilla bean paste drips off a spoon back into its jar.
Trader Joe’s Bourbon vanilla bean paste is syrupy, light in color, and studded with specks of vanilla bean. It has a mild, almost smoky vanilla flavor from Bourbon vanilla beans.

How to Use Trader Joe’s Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste

Like most vanilla bean pastes, you want to be able to taste the nuances of the vanilla. To best do that, you’ll want to use Trader Joe’s Bourbon vanilla bean paste in unbaked goods. Think frostings, ice cream, custards, whipped cream, and marshmallows, where you want a strong vanilla flavor and can actually see the vanilla beans in every bite.

Some vanilla-forward baked goods, like mini turtle cheesecakes, a custardy buttercream, birthday cake macarons, or even a mini vanilla confetti cake, will still allow vanilla bean paste to shine, though!

Check The Bottom of Your Jar!

While starting to take photos for this post, I noticed that the contents at the bottom of my second jar of Bourbon vanilla bean paste had crystallized. After opening, some crystallization on the rim of the jar is normal. Crystallization on the inside of the jar (especially when unopened!) is not.

I didn’t want to take a chance on the quality, so I exchanged it for a new, non-crystallized jar the next time I went to Trader Joe’s. I didn’t see crystallization in any of the other jars in the store, but it doesn’t hurt to look, especially if your Trader Joe’s is a bit of a commute.

Trader Joe’s Organic Vanilla Bean Paste

The 2-oz (59 ml) plastic bottle of organic vanilla bean paste retails for $4.99. It’s sold only during the holidays, usually starting around September or October and while supplies last. My local Trader Joe’s ran out early in the season in 2022 but had a few bottles leftover in early January 2023.

This vanilla bean paste has a strong and sweet vanilla flavor, and it’s my favorite vanilla from Trader Joe’s by far! It’s made with vanilla grown and harvested on Madagascar, right next to Réunion.

The paste is dark, thick, and loaded with vanilla beans and flavor. It’s twice as expensive as the Bourbon vanilla bean paste, but it has a much stronger flavor and is far easier to pour right out of the bottle (so you don’t waste any of it in your measuring spoons!). Because of that, this paste will darken your buttercream slightly.

Trader Joe's organic vanilla bean paste drips off a spoon into its container.
Trader Joe’s organic vanilla bean paste is thick, viscous, and dark in color. It has a sweet and strong vanilla flavor from Madagascar vanilla beans.

How to Use Trader Joe’s Organic Vanilla Bean Paste

Just like I mentioned above, vanilla bean paste is best used in unbaked goods. Light-colored buttercreams and custards will allow you to really taste the stronger vanilla flavor and see the beans. This paste will definitely darken your buttercream and add specks, so keep that in mind if you are decorating with it!

My absolute favorite recipe with Trader Joe’s vanilla bean paste is homemade French vanilla ice cream, which uses a full Tablespoon! Other honorable mentions include vanilla whipped cream on top of mini pumpkin pies, pumpkin spice caramels, and homemade marshmallows.

I sometimes break the “best in unbaked goods” rule and add the vanilla bean paste to my mini cheesecakes. Cheesecakes are really rich, and you can still taste and see the difference in some of them, especially with my mini Biscoff cheesecakes.

Crystallization on the Lid is Normal!

After opening your vanilla bean paste, it’s normal for the sugar to crystallize around the screw-top portion of the jar. It’s especially common if you routinely pour the extract out of the bottle rather than dipping a teaspoon into it. That’s really my only complaint for this organic vanilla bean paste.

An opened jar of Trader Joe's organic vanilla bean paste with crystallization around the rim.
If you don’t go through a container of the organic vanilla bean paste quickly enough, it will start to crystallize around the rim. This is normal and doesn’t affect the rest of the product.

Which Trader Joe’s Vanilla Bean Paste Is Best?

Personally, I much prefer the organic vanilla bean paste over the Bourbon vanilla bean paste. The organic variety has a sweeter and more prominent vanilla flavor, whereas the Bourbon vanilla bean paste has an oaky, less sweet flavor. There’s also a visible (and pretty drastic) difference in beans per teaspoon and consistency between the two. The organic paste is twice as expensive, but it seems to be made with almost twice as many vanilla beans.

I don’t think you could go wrong with either vanilla bean paste from Trader Joe’s, especially if you ran out of your stash in the middle of July! I just still plan to stock up on the organic vanilla bean pastes whenever it’s back in season.

Are you a baker like me with similarly strong opinions on vanilla extract? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and feel free to pin this article for easy reference!

Two images of Trader Joe's vanilla products separated by text that reads, "Everything you need to know about baking with Trader Joe's vanilla."

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