Have you ever heard that folk ballad, "Scarborough Fair"? You know, the one that lists a bunch of herbs in the middle of every verse: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme? Though it was popularized in the 1960s by singer-songwriter duo, Simon & Garfunkel, the song has roots in Medieval England; it's named after a big open-air market that took place in Scarborough, a town outside of Yorkshire, in Northern England. At the fair, all sorts of merchants, farmers, entertainers, and visitors would gather for food, drink, revelry, and, yes, stocking up on herbs.
Back then, herbs were prized for their numerous purported medicinal and healing powers: parsley, for settling the stomach and curing toothaches; sage, to treat epilepsy, liver failure, and fevers; rosemary, for everything from cleaning teeth to warding off evil spirits. Thyme, the most powerful of them all, was long associated with courage, bravery, and strength on the battlefield; it was known to be an antidote to poison, a preventer of the plague, and a lot more.
Nowadays, though you might see thyme in the ingredients lists of some of your favorite hygiene and beauty products (that's thanks to thymol, a naturally-occurring chemical found in thyme oil, that has antimicrobial and antifungal properties), it's more likely that you'll see it in recipes for roast chicken, turkey, or stuffing, or as an ingredient in any number of dried poultry spice blends.
But what exactly is thyme? How do you use it? And what do you do if a recipe calls for it, but you don't have any in your fridge or spice rack?
Thyme, or Thymus vulgaris, is an herb originally from the Mediterranean region that's in the same family as oregano, basil, mint, and shiso. It comprises small, rounded green leaves that grow in clusters on woody stems. Common thyme (the one you've probably encountered most regularly) has an earthy, minty, slightly lemony flavor. And there are more than one hundred other varieties, often with names that match their flavor profiles: orange thyme, caraway thyme, and za'atar thyme, for example.
Because of its grounding, savory-sweet, not-too-intense flavor, thyme can add complexity and warmth to a whole host of dishes: poultry, steak, mushrooms and other vegetable dishes, and even delicate desserts.
To use fresh thyme in recipes, gently pull the leaves off of the stems (as instructed here), chop up finely, and use liberally. Thyme also stays super-flavorful when dried, so you can buy dried thyme to keep in your spice rack, or try your hand at DIY (that's "drying it yourself").
But what if you encounter a recipe that calls for thyme, but you don't have the herb on hand? Never fear—we've got a number of suggestions, fresh and dried.
Any number of fresh herbs (and their dried derivatives) work as a substitute for thyme in sweet and savory recipes. The ratios, which you'll see below, differ slightly for each type of herb. Note that for recipes where thyme sprigs are tied together in a bouquet garni (a bunch of tied-up herbs used to ambiently season soups, stews, or big cuts of meat), you'll be best off substituting with sprigs of oregano, marjoram, or savory, and not basil.
Fresh or dried, oregano hits many of the same earthy, minty, savory and slightly bitter notes as thyme. It's also got a spicy, herbal undertone that gives it a lovely complexity. Use fresh oregano in a 1:1 swap for fresh thyme, and dried oregano in a 1:1 swap for dried thyme. If you're swapping fresh oregano for dried thyme, use twice the amount of oregano. But if you're swapping dried oregano for fresh thyme, you'll want to use half the amount of dried oregano for the amount of fresh thyme called for, as the dried herb can be potent and throw your recipe off balance.
You can also use fresh or dried marjoram in place of thyme. It's got a woody, minty profile similar to oregano, but with a sweeter and more delicate flavor. Same rules apply here as they do oregano: Use a 1:1 swap of fresh marjoram for fresh thyme; a 1:1 swap of dried marjoram for dried thyme; half the amount of dried marjoram as a swap for fresh thyme, and twice the amount of fresh marjoram for dried thyme.
As it's in the same family as thyme, feel free to use basil in place of thyme in many dishes. Fresh basil is very licorice-y and bright, so use half of the amount of fresh basil as you would fresh thyme, and a 1:1 swap for dried thyme. Dried basil is a bit more muted, so a 1:1 swap for fresh thyme, or a 2:1 swap for dried thyme, would be appropriate.
Savory is another herb in the mint family, with a peppery, robust—and, yes, savory—flavor. Swap out fresh savory 1:1 for fresh thyme, and dried savory 1:1 for dried thyme. Use 2:1 fresh savory for dried thyme, and half of the amount of dried savory in place of fresh thyme.
Dried herb & spice blends
Any of the following herbs can be used in a 1:1 swap with dried thyme; use half as much in place of fresh thyme. A warning, though: because a few of these contain powdered aromatics, or dried seeds, you may not want to include these in sweet recipes that call for thyme.
Typically containing thyme, nutmeg, thyme, marjoram, black pepper, rosemary, and sage, this spice blend is a natural swap for thyme.
A mixture of dried basil, marjoram, thyme, oregano, and rosemary, this ultra-fragrant spice blend is another great choice for a thyme substitute.
Hailing from the Levant region, za'atar generally contains dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sometimes lemony sumac, and toasted sesame seeds and salt. You may want to reduce the amount of salt in the recipe if you use za'atar as a substitute for thyme.
Herbes de Provence
This blend of dried herbs, from the Provence region of France, often comprises dried basil, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, and fennel seeds. It's got a very distinctive flavor, so you might want to start adding it a little bit at a thyme (pun very much intended) as you're swapping it in a dish.
What's your favorite recipe to use thyme in? Let us know in the comments!
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