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Marjoram and Oregano: Kitchen Basics

Bouquet garni1

Bouquet garniMarjoram and oregano and oregano and marjoram.

Have you noticed that these two spicy herbs are inseparable when you go to cooks’ reference books?

The reason is that marjoram and oregano are generic names for two frequently interchanged (but different) herbs.

Both are small aromatic shrubs that grow to approximately 2 feet (.6 m). Both are essential ingredients in Mediterranean cuisine, particularly Italian and Provençal cooking.

One goes by the name wild marjoram or oregano; the other goes by the name sweet marjoram.

Obviously there is plenty of room for confusion.

But there are differences.

Let’s start with taste: sweet marjoram has a slightly milder flavor than oregano or wild marjoram. The taste of sweet marjoram is warm and delicate faintly like sage with a sweet aftertaste of mint or camphor. Sweet marjoram is more widely available than oregano and is usually just called marjoram.

Oregano is more pungent than marjoram both in flavor and aroma. It is peppery with a bite and has a lemon thyme after note. If you tasted or smelled sweet marjoram and oregano side by side, you would definitely say oregano is the stronger, more assertive of the two. Maybe that’s why they call oregano “wild” marjoram. It’s edgier.

Sweet marjoram is used to flavor carrots, cucumbers, green salads, cottage and cream cheese, omelets, soufflés, soups, fish, chicken, lamb, and veal. Sweet marjoram should be added towards the end of cooking to ensure that its flavor is not lost.

Oregano—the wild marjoram—is used to flavor spreads, dips, mushroom dishes, pasta sauces—like spaghetti sauce, meat sauces, red meats and roasts, and pizza. Oregano is the classical zippy taste of pizza. Fresh oregano is also added towards the end of cooking, but dried oregano is enhanced by cooking as it has time to fully develop and mellow.

Oregano says southern Italy. Marjoram says northern Italy and southern France.

Need more? Oregano is also a favorite in Mexican cookery. It’s a go-to flavoring for bean dishes, burrito and taco fillings, and salsa.

Now you see.

Marjoram is milder and more delicate. Oregano is wilder with a kick.

Season. Both fresh marjoram and oregano are in season in the summer. Dried marjoram and oregano are available year-round.

In the garden, marjoram has fuzzy, oval gray-green leaves to 1 inch (2.5 cm) long on square green stems. Oregano has oval, dark-green leaves to 1½ inches (3.8 cm) long on square reddish stems. Marjoram has small clusters of pink and white flowers. Oregano has mauve-white to reddish-purple flowers.

Sweet marjoram is native to northern Europe. Oregano or wild marjoram is native to North Africa. Both are members of the mint family. There are about 40 different varieties of marjoram and oregano. All are members of the genus Origanum.

Choose. Select fresh marjoram and oregano with crisp, bright leaves. Avoid leaves that are wilting, yellowing, or blackened.

Marjoram and oregano also are available dried whole or ground.

Store. Fresh marjoram and oregano can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 3 days. Keep only as much fresh marjoram and oregano as you expect to use immediately.

The leaves of both marjoram and oregano can be frozen or dried. Keep dried marjoram or oregano in a cool, dark placed in an air-tight container for up to 6 months.

Serve Marjoram. Add marjoram to salads, cheeses, fish, beef, pork, sausages, tomatoes, cabbage-family vegetables, potato soup, or vinegars. Add in the last few minutes of cooking, just before serving to veal and liver, in meat and egg dishes, and in poultry stuffings. Rub marjoram into roasting meat. Add marjoram leaves in soups, to pizza, tomatoes, or on roast beef sandwiches. Add chopped marjoram leaves in melted butter to spinach just before serving. Use to make herb butter. Combine marjoram with parsley and thyme for bouquet garni. Marjoram is milder than oregano and a primary herb in the preparation of Italian food.

Serve Oregano. Use oregano leaves with salads, cheese, eggs, tomato dishes and sauces, marinated vegetables, roasted and stewed beef, poultry, game, beans, shellfish, soups, vinegars, or pastas. Add fresh oregano toward the end of cooking. Sprinkle on cooked vegetables. Add dried oregano at the beginning of cooking so that it can develop in the cooking process. Oregano is essential to southern Italian cooking. It is used in spaghetti sauce and sprinkled on pizza. The flavor of oregano varies from variety to variety. Oregano is also an important addition to Mexican cookery used as a flavoring for bean dishes, burrito and taco fillings, and salsa.

Marjoram flavor partners. Marjoram has a flavor affinity for beef, black beans, broccoli, chicken, clams, duck, goose, onion, oysters, peas, pork, tomato, and white beans.

Oregano flavor partners. Oregano has a flavor affinity for anchovy, capers, chicken, eggplant, feta cheese, garlic, green olives, kalamata olives, lamb, olive oil, pizza, pork tomato, tuna, yellow squash, and zucchini.

The botanical name of marjoram is Origanum majorana. The botanical name of oregano is Origanum vulgare.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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