Photo: Shutterstock/Madeleine Steinbach
In the last few years, essential oils have become all the rage. Whether it’s a few drops of lavender oil in your favorite spa products, fragrant options mixed into candles or just misting away in your aromatherapy diffuser (guilty!), these oils are everywhere. While I love having lovely scents wafting through my home, I’ve learned that essential oils could be just as useful in the kitchen as they are in that diffuser.
Essential oils are the concentrated essences of the natural oils found in plants. When processed in a particular way, they are safe to use in cooking, much like you may use vanilla or almond extract.
You can find a wealth of essential oils online, but some pharmacies also stock food-grade oils. Of course when you’re searching, you’ll find all the therapeutic classics like lavender and clary sage, but once you dig deeper you’ll discover oils that belong just as much in the kitchen as they do in your diffuser, like orange, basil, rosemary, clove and so many more.
First things first
Before I go any further, it’s crucial that I mention that not all essential oils are created equally. Many oils sold for aromatherapy or even bath and body use are not suitable to consume. Before you even think of adding a drop to any recipe, be sure that the oils are food safe. For a complete list of essential oils that are safe for cooking, check out this list from the FDA. Then, learn more about safety tips from Poison Control. Once you’re sure that you have the appropriate product in hand, you can get experimenting.
Now that we’ve got that tricky business out of the way, it’s time to dive in and learn about what useful tools essential oils can be in the kitchen.
Rely on essential oils for hard-to-find ingredients
Essential oils come in particularly handy if a recipe calls for an uncommon ingredient, like this lavender and peach gelato does. While I know I can find most of those ingredients at my regular grocery, finding lavender flowers could be a trickier task. Lavender essential oils are easier to find and keep much longer than the economy-sized bag of lavender flowers that you may otherwise have to purchase.
Use essential oils as a flavor substitute
Essential oils are also a super handy substitute if you don’t have certain ingredients on hand. If you see that a recipe calls for lemon zest and you’re fresh out of citrus at home, a few drops of lemon oil can easily take its place. Try subbing in lemon, grapefruit, lime and orange oils in these recipes for a quick alteration.
Similarly, oregano, thyme and basil oils can be used to dress up many Italian recipes or even to add a little more flavor to store-bought pasta sauces. Bear in mind, though, that these oils are potent, so a drop or two of each will give you the flavor you desire.
Pack a punch using essential oils
Since essential oils are so strong, they’re the perfect ingredient if you need to pack a flavorful punch. So if you’re making waffles and you want orange-laced batter, a few drops of orange essential oil will do. Same if you’d like your cup of plain black tea to have a touch of lemon to it—one to two drops will give you that fresh citrus taste.
Personally, I like a few drops of basil or rosemary oil incorporated into my extra virgin olive oil. It makes a great dip for fresh-baked Italian bread (much like this herbed dip) and it gives just a bit more flavor.
How to cook with essential oils
I’ll say it once and I’ll say it one more time: Essential oils have a ton of flavor. That means a few drops of an oil is equal to about a teaspoon of a comparable extract (think lemon, almond or mint). Bear this in mind as you make any additions or substitutions.
Also, because essential oils are rarely called for in recipes, it’s important to know when to add them. A good rule of thumb is to add them toward the end of the cooking process to preserve the most flavor. If you’re working with a recipe where you can’t add the oils later (like with these amazing lemon desserts), you can compensate by adding an extra drop or two to the batter.
It’s also worth noting that some oils are stronger than others. Cinnamon, clove, cumin, oregano and thyme are naturally very bold, so be careful. In fact, when you use these essential oils in your cooking, dip a toothpick into the vial to pick up a small amount of oil instead of using the dropper. Better to add cinnamon oil little by little than to ruin a recipe by accidentally adding too many drops!
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to move your essential oil stash from the linen closet to the kitchen. You might be needing them there more often than you thought!