The magic, art and science of stovetop distillation

rose mist

If you have access to fresh, pesticide-free roses in your garden, use those!

By Tom Havran

I’m as fascinated by how the essences of aromatic plants are extracted as I am by the essences themselves. Distillation is equal parts magic, art and science, and when I learned how to do it for myself at home with herbs and flowers from my own garden, a world of learning, possibility and mystery materialized in the steam before me. You can experience the mystery too with the following technique for a stove-top distillation of your own essential oil/hydrosol rose mist.

Although you would need to distill hundreds of pounds of plant material to get an appreciable amount of pure essential oil, this method will readily yield a few drops of essential oil floating upon a few ounces of water-based hydrosol in perfect, ready-to-use proportions.

Magic, art, science: The process of distillation

First, let me explain why I describe the process of distillation this way.

Magic: Distillation makes the invisible visible; the ghostly, unseen fragrance of the botanical is captured and transformed into a visceral liquid essence. It’s magical to witness the unseen scents of leaves, flowers, roots, woods and fruits materialize into liquid form.

Art: Distillation is a combination of careful cultivation and harvest of plants, an understanding of the distillation equipment, and careful control of balanced heating and cooling in order to extract and collect the essence. Much like painting a picture, distillation is a coordinated effort involving intellect, materials, technique and process.

Science: Distillation is an ancient process that grew out of the esoteric practice of alchemy. Alchemists were proto-scientists who, among other things, sought a technique to convert substances such as lead into gold. In their quest, they discovered how to capture the essence of something as beautiful as a rose – and that, in itself, is as good as gold.

Various sources place the discovery of distillation in Arabia and/or Greece. But, regardless of how or where the ancient practice emerged, the process remains basically unchanged all these ages later. Combining the sciences of physics and chemistry, water is boiled to release steam that breaks down the plant material and volatilizes the essences, which are then cooled and condensed for collection.

Hydrosol versus essential oil

Distillation yields two products: volatile essential oil and water-based hydrosol, which contains organic compounds that are both fragrant and beneficial in body and skin care applications. In large scale commercial production, the oil is separated from the hydrosol – this oil is what we sell in our Aura Cacia aromatherapy line of products. Much of the hydrosol that’s recovered in commercial distillation is discarded because it’s too costly to capture, preserve and ship it. With the following method for stove-top distillation you can retain a bit of essential oil within the hydrosol in a single essence – creating your own essential oil-fortified hydrosol.

How to make your essential oil/hydrosol:

rose-mist-hydrosol-materials

Equipment:

Large stock pot and lid
Ice pack
Steamer basket from a smaller pot (to fit inside stock pot.)
Measuring cup or bowl
Fresh rose petals (amount can vary, but figure approximately 4-6 cups fresh petals per liter of water. Be sure to use organic roses that are free of pesticide residue.)
Turkey baster
Ice

Directions:

  • Place stockpot lid in freezer inverted, place ice pack in lid, surround with water and freeze solid.
  • Place invert steamer basket in bottom of pot, and add water just to the top of the basket.

rose-mist-hydrosol-water

  • Place stockpot on the stove and turn heat to medium high.
  • As soon as water begins a gentle boil, add rose petals to top of steamer basket leaving the center clear.

rose-mist-hydrosol-steam-1

  • Place your measuring cup in center of basket, then place frozen, inverted lid on pot. The steam will rise through the botanicals, condense on the inner surface of the cold, inverted lid and drip down into the cup/bowl sitting on the steamer basket.

rose-mist-hydrosol-steam-2

rose-mist-hyrdosol-ice

  • Boil for 20-40 minutes; using the turkey baster to siphon off melting ice water from the upturned lid while replacing it with ice cubes.
  • After allotted time, turn off heat and allow pot to cool slightly, continuing to remove water from inverted lid and replacing with ice cubes. Once cool, carefully remove lid and retrieve measuring cup, which will contain several ounces of pure rose essential oil-fortified hydrosol.
  • Pour into a clean, non-reactive bottle and store in refrigerator.

Tips on how to use your stove-top distilled rose mist:

Skin care: Apply to face, neck and décolleté anytime as a cooling, hydrating and refreshing mist. Apply to freshly cleansed skin with a cotton ball as a toner before applying your regular moisturizer.

Hair care: Mix with a few drops of argan oil, and spritz dry hair to control frizz and fly-aways. Mix a bit into your shampoo, conditioner and cream rinse as a supplemental natural active ingredient.

Tom_headshotAbout the author: Tom is communicator of natural living for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brands. In other words, he’s a very imaginative copywriter. A local boy, raised on a farm just down the road from the company’s headquarters in Norway, Tom enjoys drawing, plant hoarding, cooking and living the simple life in the beautiful state of Iowa.

7 thoughts on “The magic, art and science of stovetop distillation

  1. Great Post! Curious what are your feeling on Young Living and doTerra. I see that you use the Aura Cacia brands how are they different from the ones I mentioned above? My chiropractor recommends the Young Living and she uses them in her practice is there really a difference. I am thinking about becoming a member and just need someone’s unbiased opinion. Thank you for any help on the subject, Allie.

    • Hi Allie, thanks for reading! We recommend Aura Cacia because that brand is part of Frontier Natural Products Co-op. While we choose not to comment on our competitors, we’re excited to tell you more about Aura Cacia. Two aspects of our essential oils that we’re particularly proud of are our purity and our sustainable sourcing. Only pure essential oils deliver true aromatherapy benefits, and we refuse to carry anything less. That’s why every Aura Cacia essential oil must pass a battery of tests to ensure its authenticity, quality and purity: http://www.auracacia.com/auracacia/aclearn/ar_quality.html

      Through our Well Earth sustainable sourcing program, we strive to develop new ethical-sourcing partnerships and ensure the raw materials and packaging components we buy are provide in a sustainable manner. You can learn more about our sourcing here: http://www.auracacia.com/auracacia/about/sustainability.html

  2. My daughter and I tried this several times and each time it only smelled like some cooked flower. It had no rose smell whatsoever. We used roses that we had grown. No pesticicides. Purely organic. We also tried crushing the petals in some grape seed oil and left it in an oven at a 90° temperature. That did work either. What are we doing wrong?

    • This process will not produce the kind of strong, radiant scent that you may be accustomed to from rose otto or rose absolute oil. Also, heavily perfumed, old garden roses work better than the more subtle or scentless modern varieties. Seek out sources for the most powerfully scented old rose varieties of Rosa centifolia, R. damascena, R. gallica and R. rugosa. Some modern varieties that use these older varieties in their hybridization can also work. Still, you may have mixed results depending on all the other variables that are necessarily a part of the process, this is why distillation, (just like cooking) is as much art as it is science. A step by step process and recipe offer no guarantees of success in this endeavor. Please don’t become discouraged and keep trying. Also, even though you didn’t capture a strong rose scent in your first attempts at producing hydrosol, you did capture other potent organic compounds that will yield refreshing, toning, purifying and protecting benefits in the hydrosol. Good luck and thank you for following our blog.

  3. Hello! Thanks for posting this. I am, at this moment distilling my own lemon oil/hydro sol. I saved lemon peels from squeezed lemons that I kept in the freezer until today, put them all in a Mehu Miisa (stove top Finnish steam juicer) and I’m wondering how I am going to separate the oil from the water. Perhaps, for this first time, I will have to settle for a mix, like yours, but I would love a tip on separating, should I ever be so lucky to make enough oil to separate! Thank you so much.

    • Hello Birgit and thanks for your comment. Using the stovetop method it’s unlikely you’ll ever get enough oil to easily separate from the hydrosol. That said, if you are able to distill large amounts of material, pouring the distillate into a wide bottomed flask with a graduated, narrow neck will concentrate the oil at the narrow surface of the container, making it easier to draw off with a pipette or eye dropper.

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