Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is one of the most versatile and easiest herbs to cook with. It’s thought to have originated in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, but has naturalized all over the world–vulgaris is Latin for “widespread.” There are about 350 species within the genus Thymus that are native to Europe, North Africa and Asia.
THYME IN HISTORY
The oldest known use of thyme dates back to Mesopotamia and the ancient Sumerians who used it as an antiseptic. The Ancient Egyptians used it as a pain reliever and in other medicinal antidotes. Thyme was also used in mummification, rubbed over a body and laid between layers of linen during the embalming process.
The Ancient Greeks used thyme as an incense in temples–in fact the word thyme derives from the Greek thymus meaning “to fumigate.” The Greek physician Hippocrates recommended thyme for respiratory diseases and conditions. The Greeks also believed thyme was a source of courage and men would rub it on their chests. In a more magical sense, it’s said that thyme tea drunk on a midsummer’s eve would enable one to see fairies dancing!
The spread of thyme throughout Europe is attributed to the Romans who used it to flavor cheese and liqueurs. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder recommended thyme as an antidote to snake bites, poisonous marine animals and for headaches. He’s oft quoted as saying it “put to flight all venomous creatures” and it’s said that Romans would burn thyme to repel scorpions.
In the Middle Ages, it was used as a sleep aid and carried on as a source of courage, given to knights before battle. In the 1300s, when the Black Death pandemic raged, it was part of many medical treatments and worn as a posies for protection. They continued to be worn near the face–also known as nosegays or tussie-mussies–to repel foul odors of the day.
Among its purported medicinal properties, thyme is thought to be an effective antiseptic. Victorian era nurses would use a thyme solution to bandage wounds and the essential oil was used on surgical dressings as recently as World War I.
THYME IN THE GARDEN
Thyme is an easy to grow, hardy perennial in the garden and it thrives during the hot, dry summers on the Palouse. It’s delicate, tiny flowers serve as an important source of nectar for honeybees and there are several species of moth larvae that feed on thyme–some of them exclusively!
On Smoot’s Flavor Farm, we cultivate two different species and several varieties of thyme including lemon and orange thyme (Thymus citriodorus) and English, French and German thyme (Thymus vulgaris). The latter three vary more in their hardiness and appearance, rather than flavor.
THYME IN THE KITCHEN
Thyme is one of the most versatile herbs to work with in the kitchen. Its earthy, warm and pungent flavor is well suited for meat, poultry and fish as well as soups, sauces and so many kinds of vegetables. It’s flavor doesn’t over-power a dish and is very complementary to other herbs and spices.
Thyme is a basic ingredient in many cultural cuisines, such as Caribbean, Creole, French, Italian, Lebanese, Persian and Turkish. You’ll find it in French blends such as bouquet garni and herbes de Provence. Wild thyme or marjoram is used in Middle Eastern Za’atar blends. And it’s also an ingredient in some recipes for the Egyptian spice blend Duqqa.
I find thyme to be one of the easiest herbs to experiment with in the kitchen. It’s hard to go wrong! Roast vegetables with a little oil, salt and the stripped leaves or whole sprigs of thyme. Bake chicken or fish with whole sprigs. Add it to any simmering sauce, soup or stew. Even add a few sprigs to a pitcher of lemonade for a refreshing twist!
Check out some thyme recipes on our blog, including: Fettucine Alfredo with Mushrooms, Thyme and Parsley, a super quick and seasonal Lemon Herb Pasta with Pea Tendrils, a Savory Zucchini Bread, and a very versatile Lemon Balm and Thyme Dressing / Marinade.
HOW TO COOK WITH THYME
As with most woody herbs, its flavor compounds withstand the heat of cooking. As such, it’s best to add thyme at the beginning of cooking to allow its flavors to fully infuse a dish.
Whole sprigs can be tossed into simmering soups and sauces, sparing chefs time and–what some would call– fastidious effort stripping leaves. The leaves will fall off the stem while cooking and the stem can be removed before serving.
If you’d rather, you can strip the leaves first by pinching a sprig in one hand a little bit down from the tip. With the other hand, push the leaves down to the base of the stem to remove them. It’s my thought that if the tip of the sprig breaks off in the process then it’s tender enough to toss into your dish. You can also chop those pieces to achieve a uniform size.
Don’t have any fresh thyme? No worries! Dried thyme is an excellent substitute! It’s one of the best herbs to dry as it retains the bulk of its essential oils during dehydration. Just follow this kitchen rule of thumb:
1 teaspoon dry for every 1 tablespoon fresh
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS
- Beans (dried or green)
- Meats (esp. chicken, lamb and pork)
- Winter vegetables, like squash and pumpkins
- Other Herbs: Bay leaf, chives, lovage, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, savory, sage