I like to say that botany, chemistry, history, and art go into a bottle of Cook’s Pure Vanilla Extract. That’s what you smell and taste when you open a bottle. Cook’s is the brand name you see on the shelves, but the hundred-year Lochhead family history stands behind it. Back in the days when the United States was adopting refrigeration, a Scottish immigrant named Angus Tulloch Lochhead had a dream to elevate ice cream and baked goods with premium extracts. He was a pioneer in this: when you travel, you discover that the United States and Europe stand at the forefront of flavor when it comes to baking. Our sweets are different thanks to premium vanilla.
Vanilla is a flavor that we’re all genetically programmed to love, and since those early days of my great-grandfather Angus Lochhead, vanilla has won over the globe. New markets for the spice are booming in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Middle East. This will only keep expanding.
This huge demand for quantity, unfortunately, does mean a diminishing in quality. This is why we go to often extreme lengths to secure the finest quality vanilla beans we can find. It’s difficult: even the producers don’t always understand us. Sometimes when we talk about “extract” beans with even major producers in Madagascar, we’re shown “cuts” (which at one point simply meant vanilla beans that developed some mold, which was then cut off to save the rest of the bean; but which come to mean small, green, flavorless rejects). What we like for our vanilla extract are highly aromatic splits—that is, beans that were ripe enough to split on the vine. That way, even when we see them in cured form, we know that they were harvested when fully mature. But if we don’t happen to meet a kindred spirit exporter, we’re met with raised eyebrows and even incredulous comments. For instance: “If they go into extract, why do you care if they are cuts?”
The thing is, we do care. That’s what makes our vanilla extract special. If the vanilla beans aren’t good, the vanilla extract won’t be good. Period.
Vanilla beans bear more than 200 flavor components when harvested at the right time. The most important of these is vanillin. If the vanillin content is below 2.0 percent, forget it: the vanilla will suffer. If the other components aren’t fully developed, the vanilla extract won’t carry the complexity that makes it such a mysterious, evocative, and absolutely beautiful flavor that’s unlike any other.
Choosing ripe beans is key to good vanilla. Once we have the ripe beans, the hard work begins: that of curing the vanilla, often in difficult weather, in a way that maintains the necessary rate of fermentation until they are ready for the conditioning that will bring out the full aroma and flavor.
When that is done, we start our extraction process. My grandfather, Raymond Lochhead, was one of the first to push slow, cold, direct extraction. Application of heat of course speeds up the process, but it also breaks bonds, kills off some of the flavor components, and ultimately muddies or flattens the final product. Our vanilla extract is the purest you can find: just vanilla beans, alcohol, and water. By law, Category 1 Vanilla (that’s the pure stuff) must be at least 35 percent alcohol. Some flavor components are soluble in alcohol, others in water. Ray Lochhead—being a chemical engineer—experimented long and hard to come up with the perfect balance of alcohol and water that would intensify all flavor components for the robust, rich, unparalleled extract that is Cook’s.