Thyme has been used as a culinary herb—and much more—for a very long time. Ancient Greeks burned it in their temples as incense (hence its name, which comes from the Greek thyein, meaning "to burn in sacrifice"). They also added it to their bathwater to make it more fragrant. The Romans, besides adding thyme to cheeses, used it as a fumigator, relying on its antiseptic properties. And medieval knights took the herb as a symbol of courage. As an act of faith in their bravery, their ladies might give them scarves picturing an embroidered bee buzzing over a sprig of thyme.
Thyme is a perennial in the mint family. There are over 100 varieties, the ones most commonly used for cooking being Garden thyme and Lemon Thyme. The former has the typical foresty scent and clove-like flavor, while Lemon thyme is milder and tastes a bit like, well, lemons.
When is thyme in season?
As a perennial, fresh thyme grows easily in most gardens, and it is often sold at farmer's markets. And in dried form, thyme can be found in practically any grocery store in the U.S.
How to choose thyme
Fresh thyme has a richer flavor than the dried kind, but it's a bit harder to find in supermarkets. Try looking through a local spice shop, or search for it at the farmer's market. You might even consider growing a little thyme in your garden or window planter. The best fresh thyme has gray-green leaves with no insect damage or yellow spots. If you're using dried thyme, try to pick an organic variety, since this sort is less likely to have been irradiated during processing.
How to store thyme
To keep thyme sprigs fresh, wrap them in a damp paper towel and place them in your refrigerator. When storing the dried kind, just make sure it's in a tightly sealed glass or plastic container, and keep it in a cool, dry place. Most dried thyme will stay good for at least six months after you first open it.
How to cook with thyme
After rinsing it with cold water, pick fresh thyme leaves right off the stems and add them to a recipe. Regardless of whether you're using dried or fresh, add thyme to a dish towards the end of preparation, since prolonged cooking can eliminate some of its distinct flavor.
Most recipes call for thyme in teaspoons, whether it's dried or fresh and chopped. Occasionally, you'll only need a pinch.
Like rosemary (which goes quite well with this herb), thyme has a musty, spicy bouquet and a savory, clove-ish taste. A little thyme goes a long way, so don't be too generous with it!
Swap out thyme for marjoram or oregano to preserve something of the pungent scent and savor.
Thyme in recipes
For a hot, fragrant dinner that's sure to please even the pickiest sophisticate, cook up Grilled Lemon-Thyme Chicken Breasts.
Or, as an alternative, there's always Thyme-Roasted Turkey Breast, which uses an apple-juice sauce for added moisture.
As a side dish, Peas with Mushrooms and Thyme offers a surprisingly complex flavor in every bite.