Essential oils are most commonly associated with candles, fragrances and beauty products. However, the volatile oils produced by plants, their roots and their fruits are the building blocks upon which we create flavor in cooking. We grind herbs in a mortar and pestle when making vinaigrettes to extract the rich oils. We zest lemons and limes for the concentrated flavor found in the oils of their skins. So why don’t most people cook with bottled essential oils? Many oils available on the market aren’t intended for consumption. But seek out those essences made for cooking and you’ll open your kitchen to a whole new world of flavor.
Cooking with essential oils is simply another way to season dishes, much like using spices and herbs. But they bring with them a number of benefits. Most notably, the concentration of flavor. Oftentimes just one drop of essential oil is enough to infuse an entire dish with flavor. No picking, peeling, chopping, grinding or grating necessary. The distiller has already done all the work for you by presenting the volatile oils in their straight form. And unlike with dried herbs or ground spices, shelf stability isn’t a concern. Essential oils are not vulnerable to bacteria and don’t go rancid like vegetable oils might. Some oils can change a bit over time or oxidize, but in general, essential oils keep for years.
If the oils are purchased from a reliable source, quality and freshness of flavor are unmatched. Essential oil suppliers grow specific varieties of plants and use the best growing conditions to maximize the aromas in the plants they harvest. The plants are sent straight to distillation to capture their true profile, and distillers are careful not to compromise the quality of their oils with heat or other factors. In addition, one can access varieties of plants and unusual flavors that are simply not available in other forms. Neroli, for example, is the bitter orange flower. It’s very famous in perfumery and is only available as an oil. Bitter orange flowers are not sold for use, and even if they were, the aroma is so delicate and transient that by the time the blossoms reached you it would have deteriorated.
So how do you begin working with these intense and intriguing oils? Start by substituting them for the herbs and spices in your favorite recipes, keeping the following guidelines in mind.
Essential oils are oil-based and will dilute well in alcohol, vinegars, oils and fats. These elements need to be present in the recipe you’re using. Foods that are naturally rich in fat, such as dark or rich meats, fatted dairy products and coconut milk, work well. Starchy vegetables, beans, lentils and grains can also distribute the oils well enough if they’re also blended with a little cooking oil. Stews and chunky, thick soups are a good place to start, and dips, pestos and creamy sauces are the perfect testing ground for working with essential oils.
Essential oils are quite potent. If following a recipe, you can use the ratio of 1 Tbsp dried herb = 3 Tbsp fresh herb = 1 drop essential oil. If you need to use less than one drop in a recipe, dip a toothpick in the oil and swirl it into the dish. Essential oils can also be diluted with food-grade oils. Create 50 percent, 25 percent or 10 percent dilutions for use in smaller batches of food. If you’re experimenting on your own, start slowly by adding one drop at a time. Taste the dish and adjust the seasoning based on your preference.
Essential oils will “flash off.” With extended heat, so using them in cold applications is a wonderful way to get the maximum benefit. Using a small amount in olive oils and vinegars as a final dressing to foods works well. If using them in soups and sauces, add them at the last possible step, when heat exposure is minimal. Baked goods obviously will be exposed to heat, so some loss may occur. Consider increasing the amount of essential oils used in baked items to ensure the final product will still have lots of flavor.
We’ve included some helpful tips on the following page, including a list of good oils to start with and ones to avoid to help guide you through cooking with essential oils. And, check out a collection of recipes at right that feature a variety of essential oils in a number of applications.
Favorite oils for food use:
Ginger: Adds sweet, spicy warmth to cocktails, desserts, marinades and sauces. Wonderful in Asian dishes and especially coconut curries.
Rose: Unusual floral flavor from a botanical esteemed for having therapeutic properties and being the queen of flowers. Nicely ties other flavors together. Use very, very lightly, as the flavor is potent.
Neroli: Delightful floral/citrus notes that add a perfumed quality. Blends wonderfully with other citrus oils and is a sublime addition to desserts.
Black Pepper: All the spicy aroma without the heat if you use the essential oil instead of the ground spice. Add a bit to breads, soups, meat marinades and sauces.
Jasmine: Incredible in desserts. One of my very favorite aromas of all time. Heavenly.
Lemongrass: Not commonly kept in the average American kitchen, this oil makes it super fast and easy to whip up an Asian-based recipe with exotic flavor.
Palmarosa: Similar to lemongrass but with a more floral note. Fruity marinades, dressings and baked sweets would be lovely with this oil.
Pink Pepper: Surprising, clean aroma that blends well with citrus and floral notes as well as earthier, more herbal combinations. It makes a delightful counterpoint to vanilla when used in ice cream.
Cumin: A great base flavor in bean dishes, soups, stews and ethnic cuisines. Fantastic on meats and vegetables alike.
Grapefruit: Most people don’t use grapefruit peel as much as more common citrus like lemon or orange, but it is an incredible addition when you want something zingy. Salad dressings, tropical marinades, desserts and more are all extra-tasty with a little of this.
Blood Orange, Tangerine or Bergamot: When you want an out-of-this-world orange citrus flavor, skip the grocery store fruits and head for the more potent, more exotic varieties of citrus available in essential oil form. These oils burst with tart flavor that’s fantastic in a wide range of dishes including salad dressings, marinades and desserts.
Basil, Thyme, Tarragon, Dill, Oregano, Marjoram: These commonly used spices are available in essential oil form and offer the benefit of long-term stability so you’re not risking your dried herbs becoming less potent over time. A fast and easy addition to olive oil for bread dipping. Mix into butters or cream cheeses for instant spreads with no chopping or time needed for flavors to ripen. And add them to sauces for topping vegetables and anything for which you’d use the dried or fresh herb.
Essential Oils Not Safe for Consumption
- Tea Tree
- Bitter Almond (due to prussic acid content)
- Sweet Birch
- Spanish Broom
LOCAL SUPPLIERS OF ESSENTIAL OILS FOR COOKING
- Whole Foods Market, wholefoodsmarket.com
- The Natural Way, thenatway.com
RECOMMENDED ONLINE SUPPLIERS
- Aftelier Chef’s Essences, aftelier.com/chefs-essences
- White Lotus Aromatics, whitelotusaromatics.com
- Organic Infusions, organicinfusions.com
- Mountain Rose Herbs, mountainroseherbs.com
- From Nature With Love, fromnaturewithlove.com/soap.certifiedorganicingredients.asp
- Eden Botanicals, edenbotanicals.com
FLAVOR VS AROMA
A good rule of thumb is that if a plant is used as a spice in dried or fresh form, you can use the essential oil in cooking. There are a few exceptions to this because of the parts of the plant commonly used for distillation or the fact that the flavor of the essential oil doesn’t match up with the scent as well as one might think.
Cinnamon or Cassia: Cinnamon distillations for aromatherapy purposes are generally done using cinnamon leaf and not bark. Cinnamon cassia has a wonderful strong, sweet, spicy aroma but tastes exceptionally bitter. For cinnamon either look for cinnamon bark specifically labeled as a bark oil or just stick to using the ground spice.
Myrrh: This oil is actually tremendously valuable therapeutically and is not toxic when ingested but has a bitter flavor that will likely be objectionable. The aroma makes it seem like it would offer a lovely smoky base note, but unfortunately it doesn’t work out that way.
Juniper: This oil gives a really soapy taste if used in the wrong dish. I’d recommend sticking to breads and maybe blending with rosemary or another herbaceous flavor. It can be good in a cocktail, but just a tiny bit will do.