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Thyme: Kitchen Basics

Thyme in kitchen1

Thyme in kitchenThyme adds a spicy note to soups, stews, tomato and wine-based sauces, dried bean dishes, stuffings, and stocks. It can be used in marinades for pork and game and also in chowders, gumbos, and jambalayas.

What this says is that thyme can take a long, slow cooking and—unlike other herbs—still bring something special to the table.

Some cooks say thyme is the one herb they can’t do without.

To the nose thyme is peppery and earthy. To the palate it is spicy with hints of clove, mint, and camphor.

Thyme is a constant in many herbs blends: it combines well with allspice, basil, bay, chili, clove, garlic, lavender, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, and savory. Some would call thyme a “background” herb because it rarely takes front stage but gives complexity to many kitchen preparations.

There are dozens of varieties of thyme. The best known are no doubt common thyme and lemon thyme.

Common thyme which is also known as garden thyme and includes the broad-leafed English thyme and the narrow-leafed French thyme is the one cooks draw upon most often. This is the foundation herb in seasoning mixes.

Lemon thyme—with its mauve flower and lemony flavor—is perfect combined with fish and seafood, roast chicken and veal.

The best time to get to know thyme is in the summer when you will find its many varieties available fresh at the farm market. The start of summer is when you will find thyme blossoms as well. You can find dried thyme—both leaf and powder forms—year-round.

Thyme is a member of the mint family and is mostly native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. But there are varieties of thyme native to many other regions of the world, from Greenland to Asia.

Most thymes–including garden thyme and lemon thyme–are small prostrate sub-shrubs with tiny, oval, pointed, gray-green leaves ¼ inch (6 mm) long on wiry stems. They usually stand from 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) tall. There are creeping and prostrate thymes—such as woolly thyme—that never grow more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) tall.

Thyme has been known since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans used time for both its aromatic and medicinal properties. The ancient Egyptians used it to embalm the dead. By the Middle Ages, thyme was being used as a flavoring for foods and drink.

In cookery, thyme is used in Middle and Near Eastern cuisines, and in Europe, the United States and Caribbean.

In the garden, thyme is an important companion plant to eggplants, potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes. It is said to repel cabbageworms and whiteflies.

The word thyme is derived from the Greek thumos which means odor and refers to the plant’s fragrance.

Choose. Select fresh thyme with bright-colored leaves. When crushed the leaves should be fragrant. Avoid leaves that are wilted, dried out, or black.

Store. Keep thyme in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks in a plastic bag. Bunch together and hang to dry, or strip the leaves and dry on a screen. Dried thyme will keep for 3 months. Thyme freezes well in air-tight containers or bags.

Serve. Thyme is known as the “blending” herb because it pulls flavors together. Use leaves with beef, pork, poultry, seafood, sausages, vegetables, lentils, cheeses, eggs, rice, grains, breads, beans, stuffings, and soups.

Add thyme to stocks, marinades, and sauces. Use flowers in salads or as garnish. Include thyme with parsley, bay and rosemary leaves to form a bouquet garni (a small bundle of heaves used to flavor sauce or stock.

Flavor partners. Thyme has a flavor affinity for anchovy, chicken, clams, cream sauce, eggs, fish, lamb, lentils, mussels, onion, pork, potato, salmon, seafood, tomato, turkey, and zucchini.

The botanical name for common thyme is Thymus vulgaris.

Here are some other varieties of thyme with their botanical names and descriptions:

Creeping thyme (T. praecox subsp. arcticus): height to 4 inches (10 cm); forms dense, dark green groundcover; flower color (rose, purple, crimson or white) varies with cultivar; also called mother-of-thyme and used in herb mixes.

Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus): height to 12 inches (30 cm); leaves are dark green or variegated, glossy, and lemon-scented; combines well with chicken or fish dishes.

Bushy French thyme (T. vulgaris): also called common thyme sweeter than English thyme with gray-green foliage. Dark green on the upper side and whitish underneath with a warm, sharp taste.

Caraway thyme (T. herba-barona): to 1 inch (2.5 cm) tall and especially good in stir-fry and meat.

Nutmeg thyme (T. herba-barona): adds a nutmeg note to cooking.

Silver thyme (T. vulgaris ‘Argentus’): has a strong lemon scent, excellent for cooking.

Orange thyme (T. vulgaris ‘OrangeBalsam) narrow, orange-scented leaves good with stir-fries and poultry.

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. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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