Essential oils are aromatic and volatile liquids extracted from plants. The chemicals in essential oils are secondary metabolites, which play an important role in plant defense as they often possess antimicrobial properties. The interest in essential oils and their application in food preservation has been amplified in recent years by an increasingly negative consumer perception of synthetic preservatives. Furthermore, food-borne diseases are a growing public health problem worldwide, calling for more effective preservation strategies. The antibacterial properties of essential oils and their constituents have been documented extensively. Pioneering work has also elucidated the mode of action of a few essential oil constituents, but detailed knowledge about most of the compounds’ mode of action is still lacking. This knowledge is particularly important to predict their effect on different microorganisms, how they interact with food matrix components, and how they work in combination with other antimicrobial compounds. The main obstacle for using essential oil constituents as food preservatives is that they are most often not potent enough as single components, and they cause negative organoleptic effects when added in sufficient amounts to provide an antimicrobial effect. Exploiting synergies between several compounds has been suggested as a solution to this problem. However, little is known about which interactions lead to synergistic, additive, or antagonistic effects. Such knowledge could contribute to design of new and more potent antimicrobial blends, and to understand the interplay between the constituents of crude essential oils. The purpose of this review is to provide an overview of current knowledge about the antibacterial properties and antibacterial mode of action of essential oils and their constituents, and to identify research avenues that can facilitate implementation of essential oils as natural preservatives in foods.