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About Vanilla

Cook's Vanilla: it starts with the orchid

Botanical Facts
Botanical Name: Vanilla planifolia
Common Name: Vanilla Orchid
Family: Orchidaceae (orchid family)
Origin: Mexico

Vanilla Orchid In the tropical countries where vanilla grows—on terrestrial vines–they call it “gold.”

As a spice, it’s second only to saffron in expense.

While cured vanilla is, with its complex aroma (vanilla contains more than 170 flavor components!) and rich oils, one of nature’s marvels, each step in growing and curing the bean is done by hand. Nature itself, and its effects on the bean, must be controlled. Getting nature to work for the vanilla, and honing the instincts to know what’s right, makes the curing process pure art.

For most of vanilla’s history, production of the beans themselves eluded everyone. Discovered and cured by the Aztecs in Vera Cruz, Mexico, the vanilla bean was first brought back to Europe by Cortez, where demand for the spice grew so much that all the adventurers carried the vanilla orchid to their tropical colonies for cultivation.

But they didn’t succeed. The vines grew, the orchids bloomed and died, and the beans didn’t come

No one could figure out why until the French botanist Charles Morren, in 1836, studied the mechanisms of the orchid’s pollination. As it turned out, the Melipona bee, native to Mexico, was responsible for carrying the pollen from one blossom to another. Without that bee there would be no vanilla, and vines outside Mexico would never produce fruit. So Morren pollinated the orchids by hand with a method still used today, bringing vanilla production to tropical regions all over the world. Bourbon vanilla takes its name from the Island of Bourbon (Reunion), which remains one of the prime exporters of the spice. Today, major producers include Indonesia, South Pacific islands (including Tonga and Tahiti), India, Uganda and, of course, Mexico.


At Cook Flavoring Company, we search for the highest quality beans, from Madagascar to Indonesia to Tonga. In Tonga—the tropical island that grows the biggest beans (the record is 28 centimeters!)—we cure our own organic, gourmet beans.


Beans must be harvested at peak ripeness, when they are yellowing from the tip but not yet brown. Curing releases the beans’ flavor components, which are bound as glycosides, through enzymatic reaction. First, they are “killed”—by blanching in hot water—to halt photosynthesis. Then they’re spread in the sun and wrapped in blankets at night to sweat. Over the next few months, this process is repeated and tweaked according to the beans’ responses. Meantime, the beans are sorted daily to assure the proper moisture content.

When the beans have darkened and reached proper moisture content, they can undergo conditioning to bring out the oils. The aroma and flavors will grow richer and more complex as time goes on.


Introducing Cook’s Vanilla to the king of Tonga (Tupou VI) at the Royal Agricultural Show, August 2014.

Before shipping the beans to our California factory, we once again sort them by hand, refining the quality to the very best.

This is why vanilla is called “gold.”


Extracting “the drop that makes the difference.”

Superior beans demand a special extract. Once our beans arrive in California, they’re sorted again, inspected for quality, aroma and appearance. Raymond Lochhead designed a slow, cold extraction process and built the percolators himself. Most extracts on the market are produced through the application of heat: this speeds up the process, but also kills many of the delicate flavor components within the bean. Adding heat, or reducing the beans to a concentrate, makes a cloudy, inferior product. Many vanillas are diluted from highly concentrated oleoresins and you can tell the difference at first whiff.

After extraction, Cook’s vanilla goes to our in-house laboratory for quality assurance before packaging for our customers—who range from the finest ice cream manufacturers, wholesale bakers, world-famous chefs, and at-home bakers and cooks.


Imitations and vanilla alternatives

Vanilla’s gold standard means it has always been expensive, and many attempts have been made to create substitutes and synthetics. It’s no surprise that pure vanilla simply cannot be duplicated. Its components can’t be artificially manufactured. Most imitations contain vanillin, synthetically produced from lignin, and largely produced from lignin-sulfonic acid, a byproduct of waste sulphate of the pulp and paper industry.

Cook’s offers a range of imitation vanillas, developed in our laboratory. We also customize formulas according to customer needs, so if you have a formula you’d like us to re-create, contact us at or 1-800-735-0545.


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