What are essential oils? 

When you smell the unique scent of a rose or smell the scent of cedar in the Central Texas countryside, you are smelling the powerful effect of essential oils. Essential oils are much more than just pleasant scents. They are powerful plant extracts that promote greater wellness.  

Essential oils come from steam distillation or the cold pressing of plant material, separating the essential oils from the water and plant materials. Essential oils can be used in the home as a non-toxic alternative to chemical cleaning products. They can also be used promote the body’s natural health and wellness in several different ways—physical health, beauty regimen, and emotional support. 

How do you use essential oils? 

There are three ways to use essential oils—aromatically, topically, and internally. When essential oils are used aromatically, this involves either direct inhalation by, for example, putting an oil on your hands and smelling it, or by using a diffuser to cold steam the oils into the air. The study of using essential oils aromatically is called aromatherapy and is the most common method of using essential oils. During inhalation, essential oils absorb into the body through the respiratory system. 

Essential oils can also be used topically by rubbing the oil, usually diluted in a carrier oil, on the skin. This way, the oil is absorbed into the skin which transfers the oil into the bloodstream. When oils are used topically on the bottoms of the feet, the feet’s large pores allow for rapid absorption into the body. 

Internal consumption of essential oils is less common, at least as far as most people know. Many processed foods use essential oils in their flavorings—think chewing gum, chocolates, candies, and many more.  The Federal Drug Administration has approved many essential oils for internal consumption, giving these oils the status of “generally regarded as safe.” 

Are there differences in the quality of oils? 

There are many differences in the quality of essential oils available on the market. Essential oils are expensive to produce because of the amount of plant material that is required to get a small quantity of pure oil. To make the end product cheaper, some companies dilute the pure and natural essential oil with lab-created synthetics or alcohol-type adulterants. For this reason, it is important to research the company from which you buy oils.  

Based on our research, we chose Young Living, the oldest essential oil company in America, as the company we trust to provide pure, unadulterated essential oils. Young Living’s founder Gary D. Young started the essential oil movement in America. The company guarantees the purity and quality of their oils both through in-house and third-party testing. 

What are the basics of cooking with essential oils? 

Essential oils can be up to 70% stronger than their fresh and dried herb counterparts since fresh and dried herbs only retain about 5-10% of the essential oils from the original plant. Essential oils are superior in flavor and potency over dried herbs and have a longer shelf life. Never fear, fresh and dried herbs still have a place in cooking because of the nutrients they offer and the differences in taste and texture from essential oils.  

Essential oils are a very concentrated portion of the original plant material, so they should be used in smaller quantities than the whole plant substance.  

It is also a good idea to dilute the essential oils into a carrier oil (like olive oil) or a syrup before adding it to a recipe. This ensures that the essential oil gets mixed into the whole dish.  

Lastly, essential oils are “volatile,” which means that they are fragile and dissipate in high heat. In order to maintain the maximum healthful properties of the essential oils, use them in cold-applications. When using essential oils in hot preparations, add them at the end of the preparation, if possible. Otherwise, you can expect to lose a bit of the properties in the cooking process. Even so, the essential oils will still provide enhanced flavors in the cooking and maintain some of the healthful properties. 

What’s the difference between essential oils and vegetable oils?  

Vegetable oils are fats, pressed from seeds and nuts or the bran of grains. They contain glycerol, which is the greasy residue and slippery surface characteristic of such fatty oils. Essential oils contain no fat and are mostly steam distilled from plant material.  

What’s the difference between essential oils and extracts? 

To make an extract, plant material is soaked in a liquid (such as alcohol) in order to isolate or extract a certain amount of flavor from the plant. Liquid extracts are used as flavoring in cooking, as perfumes, or in medicines. Examples include vanilla extract, where vanilla beans are soaked in alcohol, which is used in baking. 

The process of obtaining essential oils is much more complex, through steam distillation. The liquid that is distilled off is called a plant essence and the very small amount of volatile liquid left behind is the essential oil. It requires a large amount of plant material to obtain a small amount of essential oil, but the essential oil is much more potent than a liquid extract. 

What is the ratio for substituting essential oils for fresh or dried herbs? 

While there is no bright line rule for substituting essential oils for fresh or dried herbs, a good rule of thumb is one drop of essential oil is approximately one teaspoon of fresh or dried herbs. 

What essential oils are approved for internal consumption by the FDA? 

The Federal Drug Administration approves of certain essential oils as generally recognized as safe for internal consumption. The Code of Federal Regulations provides the list of food substances generally recognized as safe for human consumption. [Citation: 21 CFR 182.20.] Young Living has worked with the FDA to develop and package certain essential oils for internal consumption – called their Vitality Line.  

These include: Basil Vitality, Lemongrass Vitality, Oregano Vitality, Rosemary Vitality, Thyme Vitality, Lavender Vitality, Peppermint Vitality, Spearmint Vitality, Laurus Nobilis Vitality, Mountain Savory Vitality, Marjoram Vitality, Sage Vitality, German Chamomile Vitality, Tarragon Vitality, Black Pepper Vitality, Cinnamon Bark Vitality, Clove Vitality, Ginger Vitality, Carrot Seed Vitality, Celery Seed Vitality, Dill Vitality, Cardamom Vitality, Coriander Vitality, Nutmeg Vitality, Fennel Vitality, Bergamot Vitality, Grapefruit Vitality, Jade Lemon Vitality, Lemon Vitality, Lime Vitality, Orange Vitality, and Tangerine Vitality. 

Written by Chef John O'Neil