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Thyme, Thymus vulgaris is a member of the Lamiaceae
(mint) family and is closely related to basil, hyssop, lavender,
marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage and savory. This fragrant
perennial is native to the southern Mediterranean region, North Africa
There are numerous varieties of thyme and based on the specific climate conditions will produce different flavors. Some of the better known varieties are anise thyme, caraway thyme, garden thyme, lemon thyme, Moroccan thyme, orange thyme, Spanish thyme and wild thyme. In the US, Moroccan and Spanish varieties of thyme are the most commonly found.
The essential oil of dried thyme ranges from 1.5% to 2% and is primarily phenols of which thymol and the carvacrol are the most prominent.
Thyme is called za'tar (Arabic), bai li hsiang (Mandarin), zatar (Farsi), thym (French), thymian (German), banajwain (Hindi), taimu (Japanese), tomilho (Portuguese), timyan (Russian) and tomillo (Spanish). Also called common thyme or garden thyme. In the Middle East it is called some variation of zahtar (may also be spelled as za’tar or za’atar) which is the same word used for marjoram, savory or the spice blend za'atar (again various spellings).
History of Thyme
The name thyme is borrowed from Latin “thymus”, which is derived from
the Greek “thymon”. The Greek plant name is usually used in relation to
the word “thymos”, which meant "spirit" or "smoke" and may have come
from the Latin word “fumus” (meaning "smoke" or "perfume") and the verb
“thyein” (meaning "smoke" or "cure"). Most etymologists believe that
this refers to thyme's strong, smoky aroma. Some etymologists believe
that the Greek name actually derives from Old Egyptian "tham", which was
a plant used in the mummification process.
The first documented appearance of thyme can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians, where it was used for culinary purposes, as well as for its aromatic and medicinal attributes. Not used medicinally in the same way we would think of today, thyme was used as an embalming agent when preserving their deceased pharaohs.
Thyme was used in Greece primarily for its aromatic qualities, and was burned as incense in temples. The smell and sight of Thyme also served as a symbol of courage and admiration. Since the 1500s, thyme oil has been used as an antiseptic both in mouthwash and as a topical application.
It was most likely introduced into early America by European colonists.
Cultivation of Thyme
Thyme grows to about 12” tall, has a woody root and the stems are a
hard, reddish-brown. The stems are spotted with small, exquisite leaves
and tiny pink flowers. Thyme grows best in well-drained soil and full
The thyme leaf is green when fresh, and once dried turns a greyish green color on top, while the bottom is whitish in color.
Due to its popularity, thyme is now successfully cultivated in the most temperate climates around the world including Algeria, the Caribbean, England, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the US.
Dried Thyme vs. Fresh Thyme
There are various opinions on what’s better - fresh or dried herbs. Some
dried herbs lose some or most of their flavor - especially cilantro,
curry leaves, dill, lemon grass and tarragon. Because drying
technologies have greatly advanced over the last decade or so, this has
allowed some of these dried herbs to better retain some of their
But, some herbs react completely differently when dried, and instead of losing their flavor, the spiciness of these herbs actually increases. For these herbs, when drying, the structures in the plant tissue collapse, which increases the availability and mobility of the herb’s essential oil. This allows it to be more readily absorbed in foods. Herbs that are better dried than fresh include oregano, rosemary and thyme.
Fresh thyme is not as intense as dried thyme, has a softer flavor and works best with vegetable dishes and fish, while Dried Thyme’s flavor is enhanced when paired with spicy foods especially meats.
When and Where to Use
Popular in many European cuisines, thyme features a strong, fresh,
lemony flavor. The French like to use it liberally in soups, stews,
sauces, vinegars, and the blends bouquet garnis and herbs de provence. They also use it to pair with fish, poultry and meat dishes. In Jordan, thyme is used in a condiment called za'atar and in Egypt in dukkah. In Caribbean cuisine it's used to make jamaican jerk seasoning,
curries and stews. In the US, thyme is found in Creole cooking adding
flavor to blackened meat and fish dishes, it’s also popular in poultry
stuffing, sausages and in New England clam chowders.
Add thyme to beef, egg and cheese dishes (like quiche, frittatas, and omelets), cabbage, carrots, chicken, figs, fish, goat cheese, lamb, leeks, legumes, lentils, onions, peas, pork, potatoes, soups, tomatoes and venison.
Thyme works well with allspice, bay leaf, basil, chili powder, garlic, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, paprika and parsley.
Dried Thyme is a fairly robust seasoning, so we recommend starting off with just a pinch or two so you don't overpower your dish, as you can always add more if needed to achieve the ideal flavor. We recommend adding dried thyme towards the end of the cooking process.
Thyme has an herbaceous and slightly floral aroma with a piney, smoky flavor.
Substitutions and Conversions
Substitutes for dried thyme are basil, marjoram, oregano or savory.
If your recipe calls for thyme sprigs you can figure 6 fresh thyme sprigs = 3/4 teaspoon ground dried thyme and you can use the ratio of 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme equals about 3/4 teaspoon of dried thyme.