Cook Flavoring Co. A Century of Fine Vanilla Extracts

Vanilla is like a woman. A Diva. Complex. Demanding. Mysterious. Seductive. Difficult. Irresistible.

That’s how the world’s most common flavor is described by those who know it best. A farmer in Madagascar. A curer in Mexico. In our century of experience extracting the black pod, we agree.

Those of us who devote our lives to pure vanilla understand that she is anything but common, anything but easy. We make many flavors. We like them all. But we love pure vanilla. She is art.

Our Secret is No Secret

We scour the world for the best vanilla beans. Work on the ground with vanilla farmers, village by village. Use the same slow, cold percolation our grandfather adopted a century ago, from beans cured by hand, in the traditional, centuries-old method.

We take no shortcuts. Quality is our lodestar.

The proof is our vanilla. It’s our legacy. It’s our future.

From Our Family To Yours

Our grandfather, Angus T. Lochhead, established our company in 1918. That's when Babe Ruth was hitting homers. We have been in continuous family ownership and operation ever since.

But the miracle of it all is that we make our vanilla extracts the same way Angus did 100 years ago.

A slow, cold percolation that starts with the world’s finest vanilla beans.

Artisanal is what we’ve been doing for a century.

Tying vanilla beans

Ray Lochhead and the Cook connection

Our California plant opened in 1963, when Angus’s son and our Dad, Raymond R. Lochhead, built his own factory in Paso Robles.

Dad loved vanilla. A graduate of Cal Tech and master of aromatic chemistry, Dad traveled the world in search of the finest vanilla beans. He taught himself the art of vanilla curing. He invented the first, widely imitated vanilla powder, and created dozens of other flavorings in his own lab. Piloting his single-engine Cessna on sales calls, Ray established a legend, and our reputation for superior vanilla among ice cream makers, bakeries and candymakers across the West.

Raymond R. Lochhead and his wife and partner of 72 years, Emilie

Quality was Dad’s mantra and Dad’s business plan. He told us anyone can make junk vanilla, but achieving quality is difficult and would set us apart.

Dad also loved his customers. And his customers so loved his vanilla that the late Ken Cook, former president of Dreyer’s Ice Cream, established a retail label under his own name. After Ken’s death, we proudly continued manufacturing under the Cook’s and R. R. Lochhead brands.

Josephine and Margaret at a vanilla market in Madagascar

A New Generation

Ray’s youngest daughter Josephine was sifting vanilla seeds in our plant at age 5. She never stopped.

Josephine and her husband Don Schmidt, a dairy science graduate of Cal Poly, now run the business hands-on with their three children, Margaret, George and Henry. That label on your bottle of Cook’s extract may have been attached by one of them. It’s a Lochhead tradition.

Josephine and Don continue Dad’s relentless drive for quality. They travel the Tropics to secure the world’s finest vanilla beans. They work on the ground with vanilla farmers and curers. They select their own beans. Run their own plant. Answer their own phones. Make their own vanilla, every batch following our 100-year-old protocol.

Some things never change. Some things shouldn’t.

Josephine inspecting green vanilla beans
Don Schmidt. He makes our vanilla extracts.
George and Henry packing and labeling

No Industrial Shortcuts

Superior pure vanilla requires ripe beans, sun-cured in the traditional method, extracted slowly. It’s all about patience. No “green extractions” with artificial enzymes. No “quick curing” in ovens. No “hot extractions” under pressure or heat. No super concentrates diluted into facsimiles of the real stuff.

We use a long, cold extraction that allows the complexity of vanilla’s more than 300 flavor components to achieve their full, magical aroma. Pure vanilla, in all its richness, triggers a receptor in our brain that spells pleasure.

Shortcuts inevitably produce inferior vanilla that tastes flat, dull, synthetic or too sweet. “You can’t throw vanilla to machines,” Josephine says. “The vanilla loses its beautiful flavor profile and becomes one-dimensional.”

The more you know about pure vanilla, the more you marvel at the patience and skill required to achieve its full complexity. Slow. Unhurried. That’s the beauty of it.

Head curer Pascal Rotondravao

The Finest Beans Make the Finest Vanilla

Great vanilla extract cannot come from anything but great vanilla beans. It’s not rocket science, despite the strenuous efforts of corporate labs to prove otherwise.

And the key to great vanilla beans is ripeness. That’s harder to achieve than it sounds.

Vanilla can be as costly as silver by weight. Its extraordinary value as a cash crop makes it prone to immature harvesting by farmers seeking to thwart thieves. Beans reach their full size within two months and may look mature, but do not fully ripen until eight or nine. A fully ripe bean has a telltale yellow tip, and sometimes splits.

Ripe beans cure more easily, resist mold and like any fruit, produce far superior flavor. No amount of curing can create aroma in an unripe bean.

Yellow tips and splitting: the telltale signs of ripe vanilla

That’s why we at Cook’s devote so much of our time and energy to securing quality beans. Our sandals are on the ground. We work directly with Madagascar farmers through village cooperatives. We personally select fully sun-cured, vine-ripened pods. Josephine calls this “bean to bottle” quality control. It’s a rarity in our industry.

Josephine greets a vanilla farmer at Cook's cooperative in Ampontsilahy, Madagascar

The Magic of Vanilla

Our premium pure vanillas represent a distillation of craftsmanship that is nearly inconceivable in today’s high-tech world.

To observe that every drop is handmade from start to finish doesn’t begin to do justice to the extraordinary care that goes into pure vanilla.

An orchid native to Mexico’s rainforests, vanilla is cultivated by small farmers throughout the Tropics. The vines demand a perfect balance of dappled sun and shade. They need lots of rain to grow, but lots of sun to cure. They insist on frequent pruning, mulching and looping over support trees.

Bemananjar, Vanilla Farmer

The vines take four years to produce a pod, and then only if each blossom -- within hours of its brief opening -- is pollinated by hand, using a tiny sliver of bamboo.

Pollinating the vanilla blossom

And best not pollinate every flower lest you stress the vine.

As the green vanilla pods develop, farmers tattoo their individual mark on each one.

Vanilla tattoos

After harvest, the beans are hoisted in large baskets into a cauldron of water heated over a fire. A master curer who has spent his life immersed in the art tests the temperature and time by feel and experience. When he gives the signal, the men pull the beans from their bath and run them to a dark bed of blankets.

A brief scalding of the green bean halts photosynthesis

After a few days absorbing the lingering warmth, the beans start their sun cure. Each morning, they are laid in the sun to dry, and each evening, rolled up again in their blankets. This continues for four months.

Only the sun can properly cure a vanilla bean

During the sun cure, each vanilla bean is individually turned, examined, straightened and massaged by hand, hundreds of times. Each bean is sorted and resorted endlessly, tied and untied in bundles. An individual pod is likely to have been handled well over 1,000 times. The result is a supple, black, shiny, intensely fragrant vanilla bean.

Endless, expert sorting

Finally, the beans are packed in waxed paper for shipping. A properly cured vanilla bean can last this way for a decade without losing a hint of its aroma. Indeed, the hallmark of the finest beans is a heavy coating of tiny white natural vanillin crystals that envelop each bundle.

Final packing in waxed paper


We immediately inspect the beans upon their arrival at our Paso Robles plant. Our gourmet beans go to some of the country’s finest chefs. Our extract beans, selected for a slightly lower moisture content, are loaded into custom-built stainless steel percolators for a slow, cold extraction in water and alcohol. The result is a beautiful, complex vanilla that no lab can duplicate.

Don oversees our production. In fact, Don is our production. He and his sons George and Henry are in the plant every day, making vanilla, along with all of our proprietary fine flavors. Margaret, a Cal Poly chemist, runs the lab (and our website). Josephine and Don are in our plant all day, every day, handling every facet of our business from our beans to our customers.

Don Schmidt, Our Production


The culture of pure vanilla is a labor of love, a throwback to an earlier era before food was mass produced. One of the great joys of our business is the window it opens to other worlds where life is slower and simpler, and sustainability is just how things are done.

We take great pride in working directly with Malagasy farmers through village cooperatives, providing a ready market and fair price for their harvests while guaranteeing the best quality beans. This is real fair trade, not the kind you pay to put on your label.

Farmers greet Cook's at our cooperative in Ampontsilahy, Madagascar

Madagascar is one of earth’s most magical places, its nature and its people deeply threatened by the pressures of the modern world, including efforts to industrialize vanilla and throw thousands of Malagasy out of work. Working directly with the Malagasy people is the best way we know to resist these forces, delivering not only a sustainable product for our customers, but the finest possible quality.

A Cook's Vanilla organic cooperative in Madagascar

We pioneered the pure vanilla culture in Tonga and Fiji, and have worked with growers and curers throughout the vanilla growing regions: in Tahiti, Indonesia, Uganda and historic Mexico, whose Totenac peoples discovered the world’s most fabulous aroma deep in the American rainforest. These experiences and life connections we forged are integral to our company and our vanillas.

The culture of pure vanilla is ancient and true. We are privileged to be part of it, and deeply committed to its preservation.

Text and photos by Carolyn Lochhead ©

Magical Madagascar, the world's largest source of pure vanilla
The vanilla orchid forms buds that will become pods
Vanilla farmers tattoo their beans with their individual marks
Tattoo pins
The vanilla orchid blossom ready for hand pollination
A village celebration at one of our organic cooperatives
Cured fine extract beans
Cook's president Josephine Lochhead inspects vanilla vines
Vanilla farmers at a Cook's cooperative
Vanilla farmers at a Cook's cooperative
Jao Quatorze, Vanilla farmer
A farmer presents her vanilla beans for public weighing
Farmers keep many vanilla beans to cure themselves
Everyone attends the green vanilla market
A farmer brings his vanilla beans to market
Each farmer's beans are weighed at the village schoolhouse
A Sifaka lemur family. Lemurs are primates found only in Madagascar.
Each vanilla farmer has an official book to record his or her vanilla harvests
Chameleon. Madagascar has no poisonous reptiles.
Josephine meets a vanilla farmer bringing her beans to market
Vanilla beans awaiting sale at a village market
Vanilla farmers negotiating their village price
Madagascar's Avenue of the Baobobs
Sorting green vanilla
Village weighing of green vanilla
Josephine at a village in Madagascar.
Zebu herders
Avenue of the Baobobs
Cook's fine traditionally cured vanilla beans
All text and photos by Carolyn Lochhead, copyrighted
Created By
Carolyn Lochhead


Carolyn Lochhead