by Susan Gibson, HFM volunteer
(this article is part of a series, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which explores the many uses of locally-grown herbs).
Thyme has been used since the beginning of time- no pun intended. We most often associate this herb with culinary uses, but before we dive into how to grow and consume it, check out these fascinating facts.
Thyme, botanically known as Thymus Vulgaris, has been used since ancient times not only for culinary purposes but for also medicinal purposes as well as other fascinating uses. Thyme’s uses have included: embalming, incense, bathwater, cheese flavoring, alcoholic beverages, and easing the side effects of a hangover. The Romans are known to have offered it as a cure for reproductive ailments, melancholy or shyness. During the Middle Ages, it was thought to bring courage, and women would embroider a sprig of thyme into the scarves they gave to their errant knights going into battle. When the Black Death swept across Europe in the 1340s, posies of thyme were worn for protection.
So with the extraneous facts out of the way, let’s talk about current day uses in food. What is this magical herb called thyme? Indigenous to the area around the Mediterranean and southern Europe, thyme is a fragrant perennial herb that is part of the mint family and grows as a low shrub or ground cover. It is one of the sturdiest and most versatile of Mediterranean herbs. Most varieties are frost-hardy, small, aromatic evergreen perennials that flower late spring to mid summer. While it is typically found in warmer climates, don’t let this put you off from trying one of the many varieties that can be grown in Portland. I grow thyme outside year round. Just look for a variety that does well in our particular climate.
Thyme is also an exceptionally easy herb to grow and can produce abundantly in both containers and/or home gardens. The plants thrive in a dry, sunny location (at least four hours of direct sun). Most culinary thymes grow 6-12″ tall and combine very well with other culinary herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary, and lavender. There are varieties of thyme that are used exclusively for ground cover such as wooly thyme, and they should not be used for culinary purposes.
Propagation is accomplished through seeds, cuttings, or dividing rooted sections of the plant. It is low growing and makes an attractive addition in rock gardens, along garden walls, or on stone paths. Plant in spring after the last frost. Thereafter it grows as a perennial. I use rain gutters on a fence, and a single, small plant produces enough thyme for all my needs. They often get leggy after three years when they can be sheared back and rejuvenated, or replaced.
Thyme grows in long, thin sprigs with tiny spear-shaped green leaves. Its grayish-green leaves rarely are greater than one-fourth inch long. In early spring, small delicate flowers emerge and can be used as well as the leaves and sprigs in food preparation. Thyme is sold both fresh and dried. While summer-seasonal, fresh greenhouse thyme is often available year round. Fresh or dried the leaves are good for cooking, though fresh is more aromatic and flavourful, but also less convenient since its storage life is rarely more than a week. However, the fresh form can last many months if carefully frozen.
Fresh thyme is commonly sold in bunches of sprigs. A sprig is a single stem snipped from the plant and it is composed of a woody stem with paired leaf or flower clusters (“leaves”). Depending on how it is used in a dish, the whole sprig may be used (e.g., in a bouquet garni), or the leaves removed and the stems discarded. A recipe may measure thyme by the bunch (or fraction thereof), by the sprig, or by the tablespoon or teaspoon.
Usually, when a recipe specifies “a bunch” or “a sprig”, it means the whole form; when it specifies spoons, it means the leaves. The leaves are the most common part of the plant used in cooking, though the stems can be used for seasoning a soup or braise if removed before serving. Leaves are easily removed from the stem either by scraping with the back of a knife or by pulling through the fingers or tines of a fork. It is perfectly acceptable to substitute dried for fresh thyme.
Look for thyme starters at the Hollywood Farmers Market throughout the growing season.
Though there are something like 300 varieties of this herb, the most common types used in cooking are Thymus vulgaris (common thyme), Thymus citriodorus (citrus thyme, Thymus herba-barona (caraway thyme) and Thymus serpyllum (wild thyme) – which is often found in the United States. Common thyme, the variety most often found in Italy, is a perennial plant, six to twelve inches tall, with tiny oval leaves and a particular, pungent aroma. The following are some varieties that grow well in Portland.
Thymus vulgaris: Common Thyme (English thyme, summer thyme, winter thyme, French thyme, or garden thyme)
This variety of thyme grows to 1 foot tall and 2 feet wide with gray-green narrow to oval leaves. The blooms vary from white to lilac in late spring or early summer. Great for containers or herb gardens. The leaves can be used fresh or dry for seasoning fish, poultry stuffing, soups, and vegetables.
Thymus x citriodorus: Lemon Thyme (Includes orange and lime thymes
A larger variety of thyme, the plants grow an average of 1 foot high and 2 feet wide, with ovate, medium green leaves and a lemon fragrance. ‘Lime’ similar type to Lemon but has lime green foliage that is great in the gardens as an accent plant. Both varieties are great for seafood dishes. (variegated shown)
Thymus herba-barona: Caraway-Scented Thyme
This fast growing variety that stands 2-4 inches high, two or more feet wide. Forms a dense mat of ovate, dark green leaves with a caraway-like fragrance.
Thymus camphoratus: Camphor Thyme
An adorable thyme that grows into a tight bun 6-9″ tall and wide. Dark green leaves have a camphor-like fragrance that is great in potpourris. Expect purple flowers in summer.
For unique thyme flavors try Caraway (strong caraway), Doone Valley (strong lemon), Lime (mild citrus), Oregano (oregano & thyme blend), and Spicy Orange. Growing Thyme
Using Thyme for Cooking
Thyme is an aromatic, meaning it is used as much for its aroma as for the flavor it gives our dishes. Thyme has a subtle, dry aroma and a slightly minty flavor that can enhance can amp up your soups, sauces, stews, meats, vegetables, and even cheeses with its pungent, woodsy flavor. Thyme can add layers of flavor without being overwhelming. It also makes a welcome addition to potatoes, rice dishes, and even fresh bread. Rub minced garlic and thyme over lamb, veal, pork, or beef roasts. You might try it in custards or other egg dishes. My own favorite dishes uses several of the small leaves in an omelets and frittatas.
As a commonly found herb in the Mediterranean, it goes without saying that it pairs well with tomatoes. One of the many fresh herbs used in Italian kitchens, the aromatic flavor of thyme complements Southern Italian sauces which often feature peppers and eggplants, as well as being a primary herb in soups and stews. Thyme also is a great complement for many vegetables, including tomatoes and roasted potatoes. Many grilled and oven roasted fish recipes, such as spigola (sea bass) ortriglie al forno (mullets), call for thyme. For roasted and grilled meats, thyme marries well with sage and rosemary. When you grill, you can get great results if you marinate the meat for a few hours before grilling with these three herbs: thyme, sage, and rosemary, along with good quality Italian olive oil and pepper. Blend fragrant thyme into poultry stuffing along with any combination of marjoram, basil, oregano, sage, rosemary, or garlic. Often used in stocks and stews – it is an essential component of the bouquet garni and herbes de Provence that are often used in Mediterranean cooking – and in aromatic oils as well. For the best flavor be sure to add thyme early in the process so the oils and flavor have time to be released.
Some Favorite Recipes
If your curiosity has been peaked or you are already a connoisseur of thyme, try these easy recipes. For more recipes using thyme visit Taste of Home
Use seasonal ingredients in this deliciously simple and quick summer recipe. Made using fresh corn-studded polenta, roasted grape tomatoes and zucchini, and pesto for drizzling over the top, this dish comes together quickly, and it’s a great way to use up all of that late-summer produce.
For the vegetables:
1 pint grape tomatoes
2 medium zucchinis, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
For the polenta:
1 cup polenta (or yellow cornmeal)
4 cups of water (or broth, or a mixture of the two)
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium ears sweet corn, kernels removed (about 2 cups)
1 cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons of butter
For the pesto:
1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed
3 tablespoons parsley leaves
1/3 cup good-quality olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 450°F. In a large bowl toss the grape tomatoes, chopped zucchinis, sliced shallot, thyme, and olive oil together. Season generously with salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and toss to coat. Spread the veggie mixture onto a baking tray and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the tomatoes burst and the shallots crisp up.
Cook the polenta with the water and salt according to the package instructions. Add the fresh corn kernels 10 minutes before the polenta is ready.
Blend all of the pesto ingredients together until smooth in a blender or food processor, or with an immersion blender.
Stir the grated cheese and butter into the polenta just before serving. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Evenly divide the polenta between 4 bowls; top each bowl with roasted veggies and the prepared pesto. Serve immediately.
In the fall use creamy Chanterelle mushrooms for an extra special flavor combination
Frittatas are simple and easy to make. Great for a weeknight dinner, it’s a one-skillet meal that’s easy to clean up, and with the perfect combination of protein and vegetables, it’s absolutely satisfying and delicious.
In a cast iron or other heavy pan sautéing the onions, mushrooms, and asparagus on the stovetop, whisk in the eggs and cheese, and let the oven do the rest of the work.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups thinly sliced white button, cremini, or baby Bella mushrooms (from about 8 ounces of mushrooms)
1 bunch asparagus (about 10 spears), cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves ( just strip the tiny leaves off the stem)
6 large eggs
1/2 cup feta cheese, cubed
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook until fragrant and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and mushroom slices, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Toss in the asparagus and thyme leaves, cook for another 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
While the veggies are cooking, whisk the eggs, then fold in the cubed feta. When the veggies are ready, pour the egg-cheese mixture over top of the vegetables, making sure the eggs coat the vegetables evenly. Once the edges firm up, transfer the skillet into the preheated oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the center is no longer wobbly and the top is golden.
Serve with a fresh salad.