Know Your Herbs: Thyme

Thyme is a timeless herb, used in a variety of cuisines and spice blends over hundreds of years. But on its own, what makes it so special? And how do we use it? Here’s what to know.

Fresh and dried thyme on a marble surface

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

“I need more thyme!” is a kitchen joke as evergreen and perennial as the plant itself. Thyme is appropriate for all seasons; you'll find it in spice blends like herbs de Provence, Italian seasoning, and za’atar, and in dishes like roasted chicken, fall-inspired soups, and bean salads.

In fact, it’s in so many things that its independent identity can often be muddied, lost in a chorus of other strong herbs as they each play supporting roles to one another. 

So, get ready, because it's time to talk about thyme.

Thyme

  • Comes from the Mediterranean but has become an important part of French and Italian cuisine 
  • A common component of bouquet garni and many roast seasoning blends
  • Part of the mint family and related to oregano, but has a flavor profile that is distinctly its own
  • Culinary thyme and decorative thyme are not substitutes for reach other
  • Thyme is available fresh and dried; its dried version retains potency better than many other herbs
Fresh thyme herb on marble

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

What is Thyme?

Thyme is a perennial evergreen herb, which means that it need only be planted once to be enjoyed all year and for many years, when cultivated in its warm native Mediterranean climate. In more seasonally vulnerable regions, it can be planted and harvested as an annual … or just greenhouse-raised or brought indoors for year-round access. 

It’s a member of the mint family, which makes it a relative of such common herbs as oregano, basil, and obviously, mint. However, its flavor is distinct from its cousins. It even looks different. You can recognize edible Thymus vulgaris by its small, rounded green leaves that tend to grow in clusters on woody stems and recognize lemon thyme by its eponymous scent.

Thyme vs. Oregano

Because they grow from the same general family tree – Lamiacae – and are used in similar herb blends, it’s easy to confuse oregano and thyme, particularly French or English thyme. Both have woody stems, oval leaves, and a scent you carry on your fingertips after a quick rub. 

But taste and touch them separately and you’ll find the differences between the Origanum and Thymus clear. 

While oregano – also sometimes referred to as sweet marjoram – is pungent, grassy, and bold with its noticeably peppery notes, thyme is its gentler cousin. It bears a more floral presence with a much less pronounced spicy zing. 

These subtle flavor differences are what makes oregano a better companion for red meat while thyme is preferred for poultry. 

Varieties of Thyme

Thyme can be broken down by use: culinary and medicinal or ornamental. 

Ornamental thymes are popularly used as ground cover and not even actually part of the DNA tree that includes common thyme, so don’t try to harvest your decorative shrub! These species aren’t toxic, but you will definitely be disappointed in your flavor results. Ornamental thyme types include wild or Mother of Thyme, gray-green silver thyme, honeybee fodder creeping thyme, and fuzzy wooly thyme. 

For culinary thyme, you want cultivars of vulgaris species – and to ignore the gut-reaction connotation of the name. It’s simply Latin for “common” for an herb that’s anything but! This includes any thyme called English or French, or similarly contradictorily Summer or Winter. It’s also known as garden thyme. This type features deep green, slightly glossy leaves that grow in large, circular mounds and flower in light purple blooms.

Then there’s Turkish thyme, whose small green leaves grow closer to the stem, and citrusy thymes such as lemon, orange, and lime. These sub-shrubs will smell like these fruits when you rub the leaves, making them especially lovely aromatics for your cooking. 

Caraway thyme is another great imitator, less common but favored in England for beef for the carvone chemical that gives it that added dimension.

Fresh and dried sage

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Fresh vs. Dry Thyme

Like all herbs, fresh thyme is more open and flavorful while dried thyme is long-keeping and more concentrated, despite requiring some warm coaxing to urge its character to blossom. 

Fresh thyme is sold in sprigs, which is a stem that is snipped from the main stalk of the plant. Kept dry and chilled, it can stay reliably fresh for about a week before it dries out or gets moldy. The good news, however, is that it’s freezer-friendly, either stripped or on the stem. 

If you prefer the convenience of dry thyme, you can find it in any spice aisle. It retains its flavor better than many other herbs, as a matter of fact, so you can rest assured that your recipe won’t suffer from using this easy solution. The exchange ratio couldn’t be simpler, either. It’s 1:1 by the teaspoon or tablespoon. 

Pile of dried sage on a marble surface

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

What Does Thyme Taste Like?

Thyme is an herb that has its own distinct identity but doesn’t hit you on the head with it. It has a delightful flavor balance that dances between earthy and minty, minty and citrus-laced, savory but also sweet, and slightly woodsy but also flowery, with traces of lavender or a toned-down rosemary. 

It’s grounding, but not intense or overpowering like how rosemary and oregano can be. There is no question, however, of the general herbaceousness of it; it’s unmistakably green and anchoring. 

Where to Buy Thyme

Fortunately, unlike its homophone, thyme is easy to come by. You can find fresh thyme in most grocery stores in the refrigerated produce aisle, typically packaged in tiny, clear plastic clamshells, hanging high up by the leafy greens. It’ll be near the smaller packages of fresh basil, cilantro, and parsley (not the bunches), although you can buy thyme in a bunch instead of the usual smaller sprigs. 

Dark, woody central stems are fine, but make sure the leaves are dry, verdant, and don’t have dark spots or traces of fuzzy white mold. 

Dried thyme can be found in the dried spice aisle of any grocery store or supermarket as well. It’s packaged and produced by nationally recognized brands, gourmet spice manufacturers, organic suppliers, and generic store labels, providing you a wealth of options and price points. 

In any case, you want to look for brighter, greener leaves that are intact. This will indicate a more delicate treatment, less settling and deterioration, and freshness.

Closeup of fresh thyme

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

How to Store

Fresh thyme should be stored in your refrigerator, where it will keep for roughly a week in its original packaging, maybe two if recently delivered. 

To keep a bunch in its best condition, rinse off your sprigs and loosely wrap them in a damp paper towel, then in a sealed plastic baggie. If you want to store leaves you’ve already pulled, put them in a small airtight container, where they’ll keep for several days before turning brown. 

To extend the life of your fresh thyme, freeze it in water. This will also save you the step of stripping the leaves off in the future as they’ll come off more easily in the cooking process.

Dried thyme — like all other dried spices — is optimally kept in a glass bottle in a cool, dark place, like your pantry. Away from light, heat, and oxygen, it should retain its potency for one to three years. You’ll know it’s time to toss and replace it, though, when its color fades and its flavors don’t bloom as much in use.

Thyme Substitutes

Although thyme has its own character, in a pinch you can swap an (also) pinch of related or flavor-adjacent herbs. In a bouquet garni, feel free to call on fresh oregano, marjoram, or savory. Their rigid stems will all stand up well to heat and their leaves will add a grounding essence to your dish. 

In herb and spice blends or recipes where thyme doesn’t play a starring role, you can pull in its spicier cousin oregano; the sweeter and more delicate marjoram, whose woody, minty profile will suit well; or peppery, robust savory. If you’re swapping fresh for dried thyme, use a 2:1 ratio, and reverse it for dried for fresh thyme. For the same kind, a 1:1 exchange suffices.

Some cooks will also tap in basil, which has a brighter flavor with accents of licorice, like tarragon. Others take a more subtle approach with parsley. To go in another bold direction, rosemary is another beloved flavor and works well in any recipe that headlines thyme. The profile will change entirely, but the results will pack just as much a punch. Another great option is to go for herb blends that features thyme prominently, like herbs de Provence and Italian mixes.

However, what you do not want to substitute is fresh basil or sage by itself. Sage and thyme often operate as partners, particularly for fall-inspired recipes, but it’s much too piney to stand in for thyme on its own. 

Chicken Pasta with Thyme and Mint
Elise Bauer

How to Prep and Cook with Thyme

Thyme opens up and gets richer with longer exposure to the ingredients it’s enhancing. That’s what makes it so great for soups, stews, and braises, as thyme helps ambiently season your dish as part of a bouquet garni bundle of herbs. For this, no treatment is needed. Just tie it up in the herb bundle and proceed to the next steps of your recipe.

Another no-fuss use of fresh thyme is to put small sprigs under chicken skin when roasting to allow its flavor to permeate the meat, sealed in by that top layer. You can also place it directly on meats, like lamb or roasts. 

To use fresh thyme in a recipe, you need to scrape the leaves off the sprig. You can do this manually by pulling the stem through your fingers, by using the flat back side of a knife, scraping them off between fork tines, or, more elegantly, with an herb stripper. 

Dried thyme is incredibly easy to work with and incorporate into recipes. In sautéed dishes, you can bloom dried thyme in oil to wake up dormant flavors and maximize the use of each leaf. You can also just toss it into dried spice and herb blends, sprinkle it into marinades, or put it directly on your ingredients, like I do with the thyme-roasted Yukon Gold potatoes that introduced me to this delicious herb. 

Its Mediterranean origins make thyme a choice herb for recipes inspired by that region. It’s common and beloved in French food, where it’s a key player for herbs de Provence, and a headliner for za’atar.

It occurs often in Italian seasoning, poultry seasoning, and recipes with chicken, veal, lamb, fish, beef, particularly when the method of preparation is as a roast, including with vegetables. Thyme is also fantastic in soups, stews, and braises. 

Here are some classic ways to use thyme.