Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.
“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”
Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.
“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.
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Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.
The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.
“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”
Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:
What essential oils are safe to ingest?
It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).
Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?
There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.
Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?
A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.
Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?
People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.
How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?
I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.
What about drinks?
Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.
Are the oils better than the spices?
The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.
Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor