What Essential Oils Can Bring to the Kitchen

October 24, 2017

Essential oils and hydrosols have long been used in natural perfumes and touted for their healing benefits, but have you tried incorporating these ingredients into your cooking for their flavor?

If you’re like me, maybe you’ve tried using a natural essential oil-based facial cleanser or a hydrosol spray to moisturize your skin, but did you know that some people also cook with them? Below, we take a look at how these ingredients are actually made and how they make their way into the kitchen.

Why use them?

Consider these ingredients something to compliment your cooking and accent specific dishes. Essential oils lend unique, complex flavors that can’t be found in other forms of the same ingredient. For example: Lime essential oil will impart different qualities of flavor compared to using dried lime peel or fresh lime zest. Water-based hydrosols impart the mildest form of flavor so you’re able to play with dominant and supporting flavors. Spraying a ginger hydrosol onto a cocktail would taste completely different than using ginger juice in a recipe.

The 101

Essential oils and hydrosols come from plant distillation through steam. During this process, the steam pulls natural oils out of plants; the oils separate while the steam rises, condenses, and becomes water. The residual water is hydrosol and is very mild, since it’s mostly water. The concentrated oil left behind is the essence of the plant—the most intense flavor you can extract.

Photo by James Ransom

Shelf life is something else to think about. Herbs and spices are pantry staples for flavoring food but lose their kick over time. However, all essential oils (with the exception of citrus) maintain their flavor and last indefinitely, perfect for when you're in a bind with a dull herb in your spice rack or are missing a fresh ingredient at home. They’re also potent. Only 1, maybe 2 drops of an essential oil are needed to add a little oomph to a recipe.

Essential oils and hydrosols in your kitchen

Cookbooks have documented the usage of essential oils over the past three hundred years or more. Nowadays, chefs and bakers use essential oils and hydrosols in everything from sauces and salads, to chocolates and ice creams. I spoke with Mandy Aftel, co-author of The Art of Flavor and natural aromatics expert, to learn more about how we can cook with essential oils and hydrosols at home.

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In The Art of Flavor, one of the goals is to help cooks be more attuned to the characteristics of ingredients. Aftel explains, “When flavors are close, think about how they’re different. Take lemons and limes for example: limes are piney and green, whereas lemons are bright and sharp—what complements those flavors?” By developing this understanding, it helps cooks foster confidence and imagination in the kitchen. A tip she recommends is limiting yourself to one or two different essential oils when cooking to highlight the ingredients and not overpower a dish.

“Using these beautiful aromas will always lift your spirits!” Aftel told me, "but experimentation is just part of the fun." As a traditional pairing, Aftel likes to add basil essential oil to tomato sauce; for a surprising and delicious route, she recommends adding cinnamon essential oil instead. Ice cream is another popular way to incorporate essential oils into food. In fact, the first ice cream Jeni Britton Bauer, of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, ever made was a spin on Mexican chocolate, which was chocolate ice cream combined with cayenne and cinnamon essential oils.

To try these oils at home, Aftel recommends the following: first, drip only 1 or 2 droplets onto a spoon to clearly see how much is coming out (don't over do it) and combine it with 1 cup of your cooking mixture. Taste it, do you like the flavor? Get a sense of the essential oil's strength and incorporate this slurry slowly into the entire batch, stirring and tasting as you go. Starting with a smaller batch allows for flexibility, and you won't ruin an entire batch of food if it's not a flavor you like! As an alternative, Aftel offers a line of Chef Sprays that are diluted with organic grain alcohol so that they can be sprayed onto food as desired; You can purchase hydrosols from other retailers for similar applications.

The endless possibilities of using essential oils and sprays with food Photo by Mandy Aftel

We're already brainstorming different ways we'd use them: cardamom oil to boost a chai tea, jasmine oil folded into a batch of butter cookies, a lemongrass oil in a meat marinade, or saffron sprayed onto roasted vegetables. But before you start exploring the wonderful world of essential oils, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Not all essential oils and hydrosols are created equal or meant for consumption. Look for high-quality, organic products. Like perfumes, there are synthetic and low quality products out there—you don’t want to eat them. Reference the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list for approved ingredients.
  • Do not consume essential oils on their own, they are meant to be used sparingly, diluted, and fully incorporated into food. Don't dash the oils into a glass of water (oil and water don’t mix), it won't taste good.
  • Check with your suppliers and store ingredients properly.

Have you tried cooking with essential oils and hydrosols? Tell us about it in the comments. Happy experimenting!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Deedledum
  • Mickey
  • Lyna Vuong
    Lyna Vuong
Lyna Vuong

Written by: Lyna Vuong

I'm a food studies grad student, cook, and interior designer. (I love a colorful palate/palette!)


Deedledum November 26, 2018
PLEASE, if you have pets, don't use aromatherapy/incense/etc. They can get terribly sick, or even die
Mickey October 24, 2017
My first impression of reading the topic was: Corn and Olive oils was my “essential” kitchen oils.. Now I see said the blind man.

The first time I was introduced to “oils” in cooking/baking was in making peppermint bark. The local market just had Peppermint extract, where the recipe called for peppermint oil. My chocolate did not temper correctly and seized up. After discovering a local cake and candy supply store, I found they had peppermint oil and dozens of other food based Oils used in baking. I now have added peppermint oil, also added lemon, lime, orange and almond oils to my baking items. The oils seems to provide a sweeter taste without the bitterness of the fruit itself in my unprofessional opinion.

As for the non food oils, I noticed vitamin stores has the other oils for the vaporizers for the nose. Cake and Candy supply store for taste, Vitamin store for smell. This is the simplest way for me to keep things separate and simple. Then there are extracts to make it even more confusing to me.
Lyna V. October 26, 2017
Thanks for sharing Mickey! I'm just starting to tinker with black peppercorn oil (vanilla ice cream!) and enjoy a little hint of lavender in shortbread cookies.
Mickey October 26, 2017
I have Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Book and eBook edition. The eBook edition has instructional videos in the eBook.

My favorite is Sweet Corn & Black Raspberry Ice Cream. I have also made the Queen City Cayenne Ice Cream, that uses ground cinnamon and ground cayenne pepper (I did not use any oils here), not my favorite ice cream.
I have made the Dark Chocolate Peppermint Ice Cream that uses peppermint oil.

I do cheat and use *Madagascar Bourbon* Pure Vanilla Bean Paste, vanilla beans is something I rarely keep on hand. I think she mentions using the Vanilla Bean Paste in her book. I also prefer semi-sweet chocolate instead of bitter-sweet chocolate Jeni uses in most of her recipes.

Most often I make the Jeni’s base ice cream (adding Vanilla Bean Paste) and drizzle 4oz of semi-sweet chocolate during churning. I call it Chocolate Chunk Vanilla Ice Cream.

The beauty of Jeni’s Book is that once you learn the basics, one can easily try new things.