Leafy Stems [Zatar (Farsi & other), Thymus vulgaris (Mint family)]

While there are over 300 species of thyme, nearly all those of culinary use are varieties of T. vulgaris, a native of southern Europe and the Near East. Thyme is used especially for flavoring meat dishes and soup stocks. It is a very important herb throughout southern Europe, North Africa, Anatolia and the Near and Middle East as far as Persia, then tapering off into India. It is also important in the Caribbean and is well known as a powerful medicinal throughout its range. Thyme dries relatively well so it is often used as a dried herb.   Photo © cg1.

More on Herbs.
More on Mints.

Buying:   Fresh, this herb can be found even in the herb section of most North American supermarkets. Dried it can be found in every spice section. Note that, though the Near and Middle Eastern name for Thyme is "Zatar", in the markets this word generally describes a spice mix containing thyme and/or its near relatives along with other herbs and spices.

Storing:   Leafy stems, if fresh and in good condition, will keep about a week loosely wrapped and refrigerated. Dried thyme should be kept in a tightly sealed container away from heat and light. It is fairly durable and can be used used for at least 6 months, maybe up to a year.

Measures:   The standard measure for fresh thyme is the "sprig", which cookbooks conveniently fail to define. I'm going to define it here as what has worked well for me - a single main stem about 5 to 6 inches long including its minor side branches. The photo at the top of this page includes three "sprigs", and I'm calling the middle one the standard sprig, the lower one a "large sprig".

Recipes calling for fresh thyme in teaspoon measure mean for it to be leaves stripped from the stems. This is not always easy as the stems often break up when you try to strip the leaves, or the leaves simply don't want to come off. A sprig, as defined above, will yield about 1/3 teaspoon of fresh leaves (loosely packed).

Dried thyme and fresh thyme are interchangeable with some difference in flavor. The standard ratio is 3 t fresh = 1 t dry, but this is often hard to measure. Figure 1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme leaf is equivalent to a fairly large sprig, such as the lower one in the photo above. If you use powdered thyme, use 3/4 as much as you would dried leaf.

Keep in mind that cookbook writers are often sloppy and often presume their methods and sizes mean the same thing the world around. The situation on the Internet is far worse - so always use your own best judgement.

Cooking:   In general, the word "thyme" alone in a recipe means fresh thyme. If dried thyme is meant it should be specified as such. Thyme takes time to release its flavors so it's usually added to the recipe in the early stages. The easiest way to use fresh thyme is just toss in a sprig (or more if called for) and fish the stems out later in the cooking. The leaves will all have fallen off by then.

Thyme - Other
While Thymus vulgaris is by far the most important culinary thyme, other species are also used to a lesser extent.

  • Caraway Thyme - [Thymus herba-barona]
    This thyme gets its name from use to season "Barons of Beef" in England, though it is native to Corsica, Sardinia and Majorca in the Mediterranean. It has a strong caraway scent and can be used as a substitute (or vice versa).
  • Hungarian Thyme, Eurasian Thyme - [Thymus pannonicus]
    Used for its lemon-like scent in herbal teas, and also to flavor jams and candies. It is found mainly in Russia and eastern Europe.
  • Creeping Thyme, Wild Thyme - [Thymus serpyllum]
    Used to season meat dishes, particularly stews, cabbage and vegetable dishes containing zucchini and eggplant. The dried leaves are used in herbal teas. This thyme is native to most of Europe and North Africa and is widely distributed in North America, particularly as a ground cover.
  • Spanish Thyme - [Plectranthus amboinicus]
    This is not actually thyme, but a completely different mint. See Cuban Oregano.
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©Andrew Grygus - - Photos on this page not otherwise credited are © cg1 - Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted