Oregano is commonly thought of as the pungent, warming herb sprinkled in tomato sauces and on pizzas. But did you know there are dozens of species, subspecies and even more varieties? On Smoot’s Flavor Farm, we cultivate two types of oregano: the perennial variety Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare sub. hirtum) and the more tender Za’atar oregano (Oreganum syriacum), which we grow as an annual. We also grow two types of marjoram, which are also within the Oreganum genus, but we’ll delve into those later on.
OREGANO IN HISTORY
While the oregano we grow is native to the warm hillsides of the Mediterranean and the Levant, different species are endemic to areas of North Africa, Southwest Asia and beyond. The word oregano is derived from ancient Greek and is a compound of oros (mountain) and ganos (joy).
The Greek’s believed that the Goddess Aphrodite created oregano as a symbol of joy in her garden. Brides and grooms were adorned with crowns of oregano and laurel to bring joy to the occasion. And it was used during funerals to bring peace to the departed. Not just a symbol to the Greeks, oregano was also used medicinally to treat skin irritations and infections as well as as a poison antidote. Hippocrates used it as an antiseptic and as a cure to stomach and respiratory ailments. And the Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, Pedanius Dioscorides, recommended it to stimulate appetite.
It’s thought to have later spread through Europe, being adopted by the Romans for its flavor and ease of cultivation. Oregano was a common medicinal herb in the Middle Ages, used to treat everything from rheumatism to toothaches to coughing fits.
In the Elizabethan era, it was used to promote happiness, tranquility, good health, protection and was even worn during sleep to promote psychic dreams.
Other varieties of oregano, like O. syriacum, have been traced back to Ancient Egypt and Biblical times. Also referred to as wild thyme or hyssop, different regions have different subspecies.
Za’atar refers to both the wild herb and the spice blend (a combination of the dried herb, sumac, toasted sesame and salt). There are many variations to the blend, but it’s impossible to say what’s “proper.” Family recipes are so coveted that they’re kept secret, handed down from generation to generation.
OREGANO IN THE GARDEN
The genus Oreganum is in the mint family (Lamiaceae). They’re creeping herbs, spreading low and slow, but they truly thrive during the hot, dry summers on the Palouse. In fact, our climate enhances its flavor!
Oregano is a great companion with beans and its little pink flowers are frequented by honeybees and other pollinators.
You may have heard of Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), but it’s in the Verbena family (Verbenaceae) and is unrelated to Oreganum. Although they share a few aromatic phenol compounds–and therefore have a similar flavor–this shrubby tree is native to North and Central America.
OREGANO IN THE KITCHEN
Oregano enhances cheese, eggs, breads, veggies, beef, pork, poultry, game, beans and shellfish. It’s a key ingredient in Italian cuisine and a necessary companion to tomato sauces. Sprinkle dried oregano atop finished pizza and pasta dishes.
In Greece, dried oregano is used to pickle olives and flavor feta cheeses. It’s added to a lemon-olive oil sauce used on fish, grilled meats and casseroles. It’s also a key ingredient in Greek salads and gyro meat.
In Portugal, dried oregano is generously sprinkled on summer salads of tomato and cucumber.
In Turkey, it’s used to flavor doner kebabs. And in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, it’s fundamental to the beloved za’atar spice blend.
Depending on the type, oregano’s flavor can vary from spicy and pungent to complex and even sweet. Think about the geography of cuisines to get a hint as to which species is used.
HOW TO COOK WITH OREGANO
Gently rinse under cool water and pat dry. Strip the leaves from the woody stems and chop as needed. The smallest leaves are the most potent.
You can substitute oregano for thyme or marjoram as they all share similar flavor compounds.
Use fresh oregano in place of dried for robust flavor, just follow the rule of thumb:
1 tablespoon of fresh herb = 1 teaspoon of dried.
Fresh oregano tends to be overpowering, pungent, and can tingle the tongue when eaten raw. But those same properties mean its flavors will withstand the heat of cooking. Add fresh oregano to simmering sauces to mellow its flavor and harmonize a meal.
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS
- Bell peppers