Ahhhh, the comforting aroma of lavender before bedtime.
I love using essential oils for aromatherapy and in homemade body care products such as dry shampoo, deodorant, lotion and body scrub. But I’ve never used them in cooking! This is a whole new world to me so I invited Jillian McMullen, registered dietitian nutritionist and essential oil aficionado, to tell us how she uses these concentrated plant goodies in the kitchen.
But first, some important stuff.
Before using essential oils topically or in food or beverages, talk to your healthcare provider. They are seriously potent and must be used appropriately. Some essential oils are contraindicated with certain medications. Note that while there are various certifications, aromatherapy currently is an unregulated and unlicensed profession. The United States Food and Drug Administration does not provide dosage recommendations or approve any statements or claims on essential oil labels. However, the FDA does have a list of essential oils they’ve deemed generally recognized as safe.
Beware that the FDA has sent some companies warning letters because they make claims about their products curing certain diseases (which would make them a “drug” — for which they do not have FDA approval). And some essential oil companies use multi-level marketing, which is a whole separate issue. Before choosing a product, do your research on the oil and the brand, relying on primary evidence rather than what companies claim their products will do. I like using the Natural Medicines Database to quickly assess peer-reviewed research on safety and effectiveness of integrative and functional supplements, medicines and products (note: subscription needed for this resource).
Now, let’s hear from Jillian and learn about cooking with essential oils!
I’ve been cooking with essential oils for about two years. In fact, I’ve stopped using several spices when I cook, including black pepper, cumin, dill, thyme, rosemary and even cinnamon, for the essential oil versions because I’ve grown to love them so much. I even have a “spice rack” of essential oils next to my stove-top for easy access because they have become an everyday staple.
Why cook with essential oils? Well, they give your dishes a more rich and authentic flavor than any I’ve ever tasted compared to using the dried and ground spice. They also last much longer than herbs and spices. Fresh herbs and spices last a few days at best before needing to be thrown out while the dried varieties usually have a shelf-life of about one year. When essential oils are stored in a cool, dry, place out of direct sunlight, they will last indefinitely. They are also much cheaper, costing pennies per drop depending on the type. My personal favorite reason, each oil has unique health benefits, backed by evidence-based research. For example, cinnamon helps balance blood sugar levels, peppermint helps reduce symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, and citrus oils promote healthy digestion, uplift the mood and support a healthy immune system. To maximize these health benefits, wait until the very end of cooking to add essential oils so that you don’t destroy the properties of the oil with heat.
There is a learning curve when using essential oils in cooking and a little bit of a fear factor at first. So I’ve put together some tips for you to get started.
First, remember that essential oils are volatile, aromatic compounds and much more potent than their whole plant version. For example, one drop of lemon essential oil is equivalent to the juice of thirty lemons. Say what?! But, rest assured, citrus oils (think lemon, lime, grapefruit and wild orange) are your safest bet for beginners. It’s hard to overdo it with them because they aren’t “hot” oils and therefore will not overpower the flavor of the rest of the dish if you accidentally add a drop or two too many. Consider substituting one drop of citrus oil for one teaspoon of zest or substituting three to five drops of citrus oil for the zest of a whole fruit.
What is a “hot” oil? This refers to cinnamon or cassia, which are similar to each other. Fun fact: most of the commercial cinnamon sold in stores is actually cassia because it is much cheaper and easier to source. Real cinnamon looks like bark, not the sticks we are most familiar with (that’s really cassia). Anyways, these can turn your skin red on contact and are spicy “hot” when consumed — especially in children, the elderly and those with sensitive skin. So you would want to try the “toothpick” method when adding them to food since a little goes a long way (i.e. dip a toothpick directly into the bottle and then swirl it around into the dish, taste and then add more as needed.) I have noticed myself that cassia essential oil is less hot and has a milder flavor than cinnamon essential oil. Thyme and oregano, believe it or not, are additional “hot” oils that require the toothpick method.
Moving on to the minty oils, such as peppermint and spearmint. Substitute one drop for one teaspoon of dried mint leaves or one tablespoon of fresh mint leaves. Tastes heavenly in chocolate dishes! You haven’t tasted real peppermint until you’ve had it like this! A word of caution if you are in your third trimester of pregnancy or nursing: avoid the minty oils because they can decrease lactation. As a side note, clary sage is not recommended in pregnancy either (first 37 weeks) because it can stimulate early contractions (but you wouldn’t cook with clary sage.) Otherwise, essential oils can actually be quite beneficial in pregnancy.
And then there are the common cooking herbs like basil, marjoram, cilantro, dill and rosemary. Remember, they are very concentrated sources of their herb counterparts so you are not going to need very much. For a very large pot of soup, one drop is all you are going to need. Promise! A good rule of thumb is to use one drop of oil for one to two teaspoons of dried spice or one to two tablespoons of fresh spice. If you think the oil is strong (for example, cilantro oil is very strong to me) or the recipe calls for less than a teaspoon of dried spice, then use the toothpick method.
Lastly, you can experiment with floral essential oils like lavender and geranium. I have made lavender lemonade that tastes divine! However, floral flavors are uncommon to the palate and you likely only want a hint of the flavor so be sure to use the toothpick method here.
If you have young children who are little helpers in the kitchen, use caution and keep your essential oils out of their reach and always put the lid back on when you’re done with them. Children typically have more sensitive skin than adults and they are more likely to experience skin sensitivities on contact. Usually, I dilute my essential oils in something like fractionated coconut oil when I am using them for therapeutic reasons on my children but I don’t always have a need to dilute them when cooking. However, remember that because essential oils are volatile, they do evaporate quickly. If you want to prevent that, you can mix them in some cooking oil (i.e. olive oil) prior to adding to your dish.
Another population that usually has more skin sensitivity issues are the elderly because as we age, our skin tends to become thinner. However, they also experience taste changes with age. So this could mean the flavor could be too strong for them or not very strong at all. There may be a bit of trial and error with this group.
Be adventurous and try something new! But be sure you are using pure essential oils that are safe to consume and you are using a bit of caution as stated above. Not all are created equal and certainly not all are safe to cook with since they are not regulated by any common organization to protect you from potentially harmful fillers.
For the past three years Jillian has focused on natural options that are safe and effective. Just over a year ago, she left her full-time career to focus solely on her entrepreneurial endeavors. Her passion is educating others to make better, healthier choices for themselves & their families.