What is Savory?
The primary use of savory is in cooking, and the two savories were among the strongest cooking herbs available to Europeans until world exploration and trade brought them tropical spices like black pepper.
The savories have been used to enhance the flavour of food for over 2,000 years. Savory is an herb so bold and peppery in flavor that since the time of the Saxons it has come to denote not only the herb itself, but is synonymous with tasty and flavourful foods.
Savory has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. The genus’s Latin name, Satureja, is attributed to the Roman writer Pliny and is a derivative of the word for “satyr,” the half-man, half-goat with the insatiable sexual appetite). According to lore, the satyrs lived in meadows of savory, thus implying that it was the herb that made them passionate. This belief persisted over the years, and even the noted French herbalist Messeque claimed savory was an essential ingredient in love potions he would make for couples. As a boy his father told him it was “the herb of happiness.” For hundreds of years, both savories have had a reputation for regulating sex drive. Winter savory was thought to decrease sexual desire, while summer savory was said to be an aphrodisiac. Naturally, summer savory became the more popular of the two!
During Caesar’s reign, it is believed that the Romans introduced savory to England, where it quickly became popular both as a medicine and a cooking herb. The Saxons named it savory for its spicy, pungent taste. According to some sources, it was not actually cultivated until the ninth century.
The Italians may have been among the first to grow savory as a kitchen herb. It is still used extensively in their cooking and makes an especially good companion to green beans and lentils. Winter savory shrubs made popular hedges in Tudor herb and knot gardens and in shrub mazes. The seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that the savories were valuable for their “heating, drying and carminative [action], expelling wind from the stomach and bowels, and are good in asthma and other affections of the breast.” It was regarded as a promoter of regular menstruation and as a tonic for the reproductive system. Culpeper said that “it is much commended for pregnant women to take inwardly and to smell often unto.” He also recommended savory as a cure for deafness.
In California, most people have heard of Yerba Buena, the original name for the city of San Francisco. Few probably realize that the “good herb” (as the name translates to) is actually a variety of savory: Satureja douglasii. This low-growing, creeping perennial is native to the Pacific coast, thriving where it finds rich, moist soil. The early settlers learned to dry the herb and drank it as a tea to cure a variety of ailments, thus earning its name “good herb.”
The savories are members of the genus Satureja, which comprises about 30 species. Summer savory (S. hortensis) and winter savory (S. montana) are the best known. Summer savory is an annual with a branching root system and bushy, finely hairy stems. The entire plant is highly aromatic. Winter savory is a hardy semievergreen perennial. It is woody at the base and forms a compact bush. It has a heavier aroma, while that of summer savory is sweeter and more delicate. Both species are native to the Mediterranean region; naturalized in North America.
Cooking with Savory
Savory’s wonderfully distinct piquancy brings an agreeable tasty element to relatively mild foods without overpowering them. The classic blend fines herbes and the traditional bunch of herbs for casseroles, bouquet garni will often contain savory.
Savory complements egg dishes, whether chopped finely and added to scrambled eggs and omelets, or treated as a garnish with parsley. Beans, lentils and peas all benefit from the addition of savory in almost any situation. Its robust flavor holds up well in long, slow-cooked dishes such as soups and stews. Savory combines well with breadcrumbs for stuffings. Most commonly used as a seasoning for green vegetables, savory has a special affinity is for beans.
Use summer savory, with its more delicate flavour, for tender baby green beans, and winter savory to enhance a whole medley of dried beans and lentils. It is no coincidence that the German word for the herb is Bohenkraut, meaning bean herb, as one of the components of the herb naturally aids the digestion of these sometimes problematic legumes.
Summer savory is the most delicate of the familiar varieties, both in taste and in character. It is an annual that requires light, rich soil and full sun, conditions that make it ideal for growing indoors. It will reach a height of about 1 1/2 feet and produces whorls of tiny white to rose flowers in late summer. The slender pale green leaves grow sparsely along delicate reddish stems. The stems themselves are square in shape, letting us know that they are related to the mint family. This is also evident in the aroma of the summer savory: a mixture reminiscent of both mint and thyme. Because the leaves are so tender they can be added fresh to salads or used as a toothsome garnish.
One efficient way to preserve that fresh, summery flavor is to bottle the herb in vinegar at the height of the season. The ancient Romans were reported to have used savory vinegar as one of their main condiments as well as using savory liberally in their sauces. Savory also dries well. Once dried and chopped, it is an integral part of many herb mixtures, such as Herbs de Provence. This blend of Mediterranean herbs brings out the best in stews, vegetable dishes, pizza toppings, and shines as a seasoning for roasting meats, fowl, and fish.
Winter savory is a coarser variety. Often used as a hedging plant in knot gardens of the Tudor era, it is a dense perennial shrub that grows to a height of 15 inches in well drained soil and full sun. The plant produces fragrant white to lilac colored blossoms that are attractive to bees. Virgil encouraged the planting of savory near one’s beehives because of the wonderful flavor it adds to the honey. The leaves of winter savory are bright green, narrow, and tough. They are best used for dishes that require long cooking, such as stews, or added to the water when cooking dried beans so that there is enough heat and moisture to break them down. This not only releases the flavorful oils, but also softens the leaves so that they are palatable. Winter savory is often used in stuffing, with vegetables, as a seasoning for fowl, and in making sausages. In fact, it is used today in the commercial preparation of salami.
Both of these varieties of savory have a peppery bite to them, although the summer savory is milder. It has been suggested to use this herb as a seasoning for salt-free diets as the strong flavor makes food more appealing.
Substitute for Savory
For winter or summer savory you can substitute with thyme which is stronger. Or, combine thyme with a pinch of sage or mint.
Health Benefits of Savory
While both varieties are used in cooking, Summer Savory has a much longer tradition of medicinal use.It has long been reputed to be a general tonic to the digestive tract and as a powerful antiseptic. Branches of savory were tossed onto fire to create an aromatic disinfectant. Even today, because of its pungent oils, it is commonly used in toothpaste and soaps. Active compounds of the savory leaf include volatile oils (carvacrol, p-cymene, alpha-thujene, alpha-pinene, beta-myrcene, beta-caryophyllene, terpinene, and thymol), and tannic acid. The carvacol and p-cymene content of this herb give it a mild antiseptic effect. The tannin content is responsible for savory’s astringent qualities, making it a popular choice in the relief of diarrhea.
The herb has also been used as a gargle for sore throat. As a digestive aid, savory is used in cases of indigestion and flatulence. It is often added as a spice to dishes containing beans for this reason. The most common medicinal use of savory today is in the treatment of gastrointestinal enteritis, the inflammation of the intestinal tract. In some folk cultures, savory has been used to increase libido.
Satureja Hortensis Satureja Montana
Fam: Labiatae (mint)
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay