Thyme is used widely throughout Western and Middle Eastern cuisines. A perennial garden favorite and a member of the mint family, it is believed to have originated in Mediterranean Europe. Its tender leaves are about ¼-inch or 6 mm, even smaller than those of oregano, and are green or variegated green and yellow, depending on the variety. They have an earthy somewhat peppery taste with notes of clove and lemon. A key ingredient in both Herbes de Provence and za’atar, thyme is also commonly used in a bouquet garni.
Though widely available year round, it’s really a summer crop that peaks in June. A sunny window sill is all that’s need to cultivate your own, which is usually the freshest way to enjoy it.
There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, a handful of which are used for culinary purposes. Common thyme (thymus vulgaris) goes by many names–including garden, French, English and German Winter Thyme–with only minor variations in leaf color, shape and size. This is the variety most often sold at supermarkets. Lemon thyme (T. citriodorus) has an easily identifiable lemon scent and has a variegated leaf of green and yellow hues. Caraway thyme (T. herbs-barona) is not as commonly found but has such a distinct scent of caraway, that it can sometimes be substituted for the real thing.
BUYING AND STORING THYME
Fresh thyme is readily available in the supermarkets year round, but for the freshest option, buy from your local farmers market during the summer. Look for leaves that are bright in color without blemishes or black marks. Avoid any with dried leaves. Store in a plastic clam shell or bag in the refrigerator. Depending on how fresh it is at the time of purchase, thyme can last up to two weeks. Discard if the leaves become darkened or dried out. For longer term storage, freeze one teaspoon of whole thyme leaves in an ice cube tray with just enough water to cover. When making soups and stews, drop simply from a cube or two into pot. You can also dry the leaves in either a dehydrator or by hanging a small bundle in a warm, dry area.
Dried thyme is commonly sold in supermarkets as whole or ground. Double-check recipe requirements, as they don’t measure equally.
COOKING WITH THYME
Use fresh thyme to flavor soups, stews and sauces, particularly tomato-base sauces. Add it to sausages and stuffings. Common thyme goes well with beef, poultry and fish and is delicious on grilled lamb. Lemon thyme is less pungent and therefore works with veal or even seafood. Unless you’re using a bouquet garni, don’t cook with them stems. Strip the leaves off and finely chop them for all but the most rustic preparations.
Dried time has a more intensive flavor, especially when it’s ground. A little goes a long way, but it works fine in spicier dishes and with meats. Just avoid using it with fish or seafood. Dredge a log of fresh goat cheese in dried whole thyme leaves and bake in a small oven-safe dish at 400°F oven for 10-12 minutes. Spread on thin slices of baguette for a truly warm and wonderful treat.
Fresh or dried, it’s best to add thyme at the beginning of the cooking process to help mute its moderately intensive nature.
Two compounds, thymol and carvacrol, give thyme its unique flavor and smell, both of which pair nicely with bay leaf, parsley and rosemary, the cornerstones of a traditional bouquet garni. Thyme also has strong affinities with mushroom, onions, potatoes and tomatoes, and also pairs well with carrots and green beans. Lemon thyme pairs especially well with seafood.