When I think of thyme, I’m reminded of a sustained bass note in a symphony. I may not be conscious of which note is being played, but I am aware that something is underpinning all the other melodies and notes in the symphony. Similarly, thyme buttresses and balances other flavors in a dish. Top notes like parsley, onion, garlic, and ginger taste less complex without the minty warmth that thyme contributes to the overall flavor.
Unlike rosemary, which tends to dominate other flavors in a dish, thyme shares the spotlight with other herbs graciously, perfuming foods with its warm, aromatic flavor. A few finely chopped leaves added at the last minute bring the other flavors into sharper focus.
Because it’s equally at home in a caramel sauce served over roasted fruits as it is in baked macaroni and cheese, thyme has a prominent place in my herb garden and spice cabinet.
The hills of Greece are covered with wild thyme, and thyme honey from the tiny pink and lavender blossoms is plentiful. To the ancient Greeks, thyme came to denote elegance, and the phrase “to smell of thyme” became an expression of stylish praise. Thyme was widely used: medically, in massage and bath oils, as incense in the temples and as an aphrodisiac. Even the origins of the word thyme are Greek: from the word thymon meaning “courage.”
The Romans also associated thyme with courage and vigor, bathing in waters scented with thyme to prepare themselves for battle. The Scottish highlanders of old would prepare a tea of wild thyme for the same purpose, as well as for warding off nightmares. During the Middle Ages, European ladies embroidered a sprig of thyme on tunics for their knights, again as a token of courage.
Native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean area, Thymus vulgaris is a perennial shrub belonging to the Labiatae, or mint, family.
For the broadest culinary use, French thyme (also called summer thyme) and English thyme are the two to look for at your local market, but there are many other variants.
Lemon thyme — the leaves are tiny and heart shaped, ringed with a splash of yellow. As the name implies, lemon thyme has a bit of a citrus tang, but is milder than most other thyme. This makes it a natural choice for seasoning seafood dishes and even sweets. The citrus flavor also helps to lighten fatty dishes. The natural, volatile oils also work as a digestive aid. These same pungent oils make lemon thyme a favorite in aroma therapy for the treatment of asthma.
Caraway thyme, although difficult to find, makes an intriguing addition to meat dishes and is especially tasty in combination with garlic and wine. It is a low-growing variety that forms a dense, dark green mat. It spreads quickly, making it a good ground cover, especially with its soft, pink blossoms.
Creeping thyme (Thymus drucei) also called “mother of thyme” or “wild thyme,” is another low-growing variety, more often used for gardening than for cooking. It is ideal for filling in garden pathways and between stepping stones in areas of light foot traffic, producing a soft, fragrant carpet under foot. Other variants include a pinescented thyme native to northern Africa, one from the Azores with the aroma of tangerine, and even one that mimics oregano.
Preparing fresh thyme
Rinse fresh thyme well before using. Pat it dry and then pick the leaves from the stem if you’ll be chopping the thyme (the stems are tough and you don’t want to eat them). Some thyme varieties can be tedious to pick, but English thyme, with its wiry stems, is quite easy: Pinch the top of a sprig between thumb and forefinger. Zip your other thumb and forefinger down the stem, pulling off the leaves as you go.
Fresh vs dried thyme
Like any other herb, fresh and dried thyme are not the same thing. But in this case, the dried version has its charms, particularly in a stuffing for poultry. A good rule to follow: Substitute about one teaspoon of the dried for about a tablespoon of the fresh.
Use an infusion to capture flavor
Thyme doesn’t always have to be permanently added to a dish to impart its flavor. A bouquet garni is a case in point. This classical flavoring for stocks, soups, and sauces consists of thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, and parsley tied into a cheesecloth pouch. The bouquet garni is simmered until it releases its flavors into the liquid. Then it’s discarded, allowing just the essence of its ingredients to remain.
High-quality olive oil and vinegar are perfect vehicles for thyme’s pleasantly insistent flavor. Add the herb to the olive oil and heat it to 220°F Keep the temperature between 220° and 250°F for 20 minutes, and then remove it from the heat and let it steep until cool. Bottle the infused oil and store it in the refrigerator.
Mild vinegars, such as white balsamic, Champagne, and white wine, also marry well with a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Simply simmer the vinegar with the herb and perhaps strips of orange zest for a few minutes. Strain out the solids, cover tightly and store in a cool, dark place. Use the infused oil or vinegar in place of plain oil or vinegar whenever you feel the need for that bass note of thyme.
Suggested uses for thyme
• Roast a pork loin with tart apples and root vegetables. Deglaze the pan with thyme-infused white balsamic vinegar and then mellow the pan sauce with a bit of honey.
• Stuff a chicken with a bunch of fresh thyme and a halved lemon before roasting.
• Flavor a leek quiche or scrambled eggs with thyme.
• Add a sprig of thyme to a pot of rice pilaf.
• Drizzle thyme-infused olive oil into a legume-based soup, like minestrone or lentil, or use it as the base for a vinaigrette.
• Poach white fish fillets in a thyme-scented broth.
• Stuff a whole fish, like sea bass or turbot, with a mixture of caramelized onions and finely chopped thyme and then grill.
• Marinate a beef filet or leg of lamb overnight in a mixture of dry red wine, fruity olive oil, crushed sprigs of English thyme, salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Drain and dry the meat before roasting, and sprinkle with more chopped fresh thyme during roasting.