What is Thyme?

It would be false to say that it is easier to list the dishes thyme is not used in than the ones that it is, but in Western and Middle Eastern cuisine, thyme finds its way into the greater proportion of traditional dishes. This is because thyme’s distinct savory pungency brings an agreeable depth of flavor to soups, stews and casseroles an almost any dish containing meat. Thyme is traditional in bouquet garni (along with marjoram, parsley and bay.)

Origin and History

Thyme is indigenous to the Mediterranean with many species coming from an area that encompasses southern Europe, western Asia and North Africa.

The Egyptians (who used it in the embalming process) and the Ancient Greeks (who employed it as a fumigant) both appreciated the antiseptic properties of thyme. Dioscorides mentioned its value as an expectorant and Pliny recommended it for fumigating. The name thyme derives from the Greek thymon meaning ‘to fumigate’, although various interpretations have been made from similar words that mean courage and sacrifice, other attributes that thyme was traditionally associated with.

Among the Greeks, the phrase ‘to smell of thyme was a sincere complement inferring gracefulness and having none of the double entendre of the modern expression to ‘coming up smelling of roses’! The botanical suffix for wild thyme, serpyllum, derives from a Greek word ‘to creep’ in reference to the low-growing, entwined, snake-like habit of the groundcover rhymes. The Ancient Romans found the palate pleasing taste of thyme a useful complement to fatty cheeses and they used it to flavor their alcoholic beverages. One legend has it that thyme was included among the hay used to make a bed for the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.

Thyme was introduced to England by the Romans, and was common in the Middle Ages, Gerard mentions it in his Herball and by the sixteenth century thyme had become naturalized there, although its flavor in misty green England never achieved the pungency of thyme grown in hot Mediterranean climates.

The famous Hymettus honey of Greece has a characteristic flavor that is achieved through bees gathering pollen from the abundance of wild thyme flowering on Mount Hymettus near Athens,

In 1725 the German apothecary Neuiuiann isolated the essential oil of thyme (thymol), however it is worth noting that up until the early twentieth century, the majority of the world’s thymol was actually extracted from ajowan seeds not the herb thyme.

Thymus was Greek for “courage” as might he considered appropriate for an herb that is invigorating to the senses. But the name may also derive from the Greek term “to fumigate” and again this would he fitting, as the herb was burned to chase stinging insects from the house. A bed of thyme was thought to be a home to fairies, and gardeners once set aside a patch of the herb for them, much as we provide birdhouses.

The plant’s medicinal reputation grew over the centuries. Thyme pillows were thought to relieve both epilepsy and melancholy. From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, thyme was used to combat the plagues that swept over Europe, and as recently as World War I, the essential oil served as a battlefield antiseptic. The herb was thought to have a psychological effect on people. A soup of beer and thyme was an antidote to shyness; a range of nervous disorders, including nightmares, was said to respond to thyme tea. Thyme sailed to the New World with the first European settlers, and today it grows wild in a few areas of North America.

Purchasing and Storage

Fresh garden thyme and lemon thyme can generally be bought in bunches from fresh produce retailers. The robustness of this plant makes the prospect of buying wilted thyme almost inconceivable, the reverse being more likely; if thyme is kept too moist, the leaves will start to blacken and lose their flavor. Sprays of thyme will keep for over a week in the refrigerator. The leaves can be stripped off and frozen with a little water in ice-cube trays and sprigs wrapped in foil will freeze and keep for a few mouths. Garden thyme is the variety that is commercially dried and it is readily available in supermarkets and specialty food stores.

Lemon thyme is rarely seen in its dry form, and this is due more to the lack of demand for it than its ability to keep its flavor when dried. Good quality dried garden thyme leaves are gray-green in color and should not have any pieces of stem amongst them, as these will not soften in cooking and can be most uncomfortable when eaten.

In the Middle East, their quite green, tantalizingly pungent thyme is referred to as zatar, the term that is also used to describe a mix of thyme, toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. When buying thyme from a Middle Eastern store, call it ‘za’atar herb’ and for the blend with sumac, say ‘zatar mix’. Thyme should be stored in the same way as other dried herbs, in an airtight pack and protected from extremes of heat, light and humidity. Thyme, when stored correctly, will last for longer than most dried herbs, that is from 18 months to two years.

Cooking with Thyme

Thyme tastes delicately green with a faint clove aftertaste, It ranks as one of the fines herbes of French cuisine. Leaves and thyme sprigs are used in salads as garnishes and most famously in clam chowder, bouquets garnis, and French, Creole, and Cajun cuisines. Thyme works well with veal, lamb, beef, poultry, fish, poultry stuffing, pâtés, sausages, stews, soups, stocks, bread, herbed butters, herbed mayonnaise, flavoured vinegars, mustard, and bean and lentil casseroles. Use it with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, carrots, eggplant, parsnips, leeks, mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, sweet peppers, potatoes, spinach, corn, peas, cheese, eggs, and rice. its flavor blends well with those of lemon, garlic, and basil. For a different taste, try flavoured varieties such as lemon thyme.

Substitute for Thyme

marjoram, oregano or savory Equivalents for dried leaves: 1 oz. = 1/2 cup Equivalents for fresh: 1 sprig = 1/2 tsp dried

Health Benefits of Thyme

Oil of Thyme was used during World War I to treat infection and to help relieve pain. The part of this plant used medicinally is the above ground portion. The primary chemical constituents of Thyme include essential oil (borneol, carvacrol, cymol, linalool, thymol), bitter principle, tannin, flavonoids (apigenin, luteolin), saponins, and triterpenic acids. Small amounts of this herb are sedative, whereas larger amounts are stimulant. Thyme is used against hookworm, roundworms, and threadworms.

Thyme also warms and stimulates the lungs, expels mucus, and relieves congestion. It also helps deter bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. Both constituents thymol and carvacrol have a relaxing effect upon the gastrointestinal tract’s smooth muscles. Thyme aids in the digestion of high fat foods, and has been used to preserve meat.

Known topical applications include its use as a gargle and mouthwash for dental decay, laryngitis, mouth sores, plaque formation, sore throat, thrush, tonsillitis, and bad breath.

Thyme has been used as a compress for lung congestion such as asthma, bronchitis, colds and flu, and as a poultice for wounds, mastitis, insect bites and stings. It has also been used as an eyewash for sore eyes, and as a hair rinse for dandruff. The essential oil is added to soaps and antidepressant inhalations.

Description and Cultivation

Though there are over 100 varieties of thyme, including many hybrids, it is really only common garden thyme and lemon thyme that are of culinary significance. Ornamental types that are rarely used in cooking include Westmoreland thyme, golden thyme, silver posy thyme, gray woolly thyme, variegated lemon thyme and caraway thyme.

Garden thyme is a small perennial shrub that may vary widely in appearance depending upon the soil and climatic conditions it is growing under. Generally this variety of thyme is stiff and bushy in appearance with many thin, erect, stalks no higher than 12 in. (30 cm), that are covered by pairs of small, narrow, elliptical gray-green leaves, sometimes reddish-rust colored on the underside, and from 1/4 -1/3 in. (5-10 mm) long. Pinkish-white, lipped flowers are particularly attractive to bees and are borne in whorls at the tips of the branches.

The aroma of thyme is pungent, warming, spicy and agreeable. Its flavor is similarly pungent and warming with a lingering, medicinal, mouth-freshening sharpness that comes from the presence of an important volatile oil, thymol. Lemon thyme is a cross between garden thyme and the large wild thyme and is a smaller plant of similar structure that only grows to 6 in. (15 cm) tall. Its leaves are greener than those of garden thyme and although less pungent in flavour, have a particularly appealing lemon tang. Wild thyme is arguably the best known of the low-growing, ground-cover thymes seen in abundance in rockeries and filling gaps in sandstone flagging.

When grown under what many believe to be the most suitable conditions, thyme is already close to being dry when it is picked. Thyme is dried in the same way as other firm-leaved herbs such as sage, oregano and rosemary: in the shade, where it is warm and the humidity low.

The leaves are then easily removed front the stems by rubbing them over a large sieve. This lets the tiny leaves through while keeping out the pieces of woody stalk. Some years ago I was told of one ingeniously simple method that involved placing dried thyme bushes on a slab of concrete and rolling a tennis court roller over them. The bushes sprang tip again making them easy to pick up and then the leaves were swept into a pile for collection. The best quality dried thyme leaves are often winnowed to remove the last remaining pieces of stem.

Other Names

Arabic: Satr, Zatr
Chinese (Cantonese): Baak leih heung
Chinese (Mandarin): Bai li xiang Danish: Timian
Dutch: Tijm, Keukentijm, Wintertijm Farsi: Satar, Zatar
French: Thym
German: Thymian, Römischer Quendel
Greek: Thimari, Thymari Italian: Timo Japanese: Taimu, Jakoso
Portuguese: Tomilho-ordinário; Tomilho, Timo
Spanish: Tomillo
Thai: Taymat
Vietnamese: Húng tây

Scientific Name

Thymus vulgaris Fam: Labiatae

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