Mighty Thyme: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About This Tiny Herb

You wouldn’t know it just by looking at them but the small leaves of thyme are full of flavor and potent antiseptic properties. This has made thyme a preferred herb in the medical community as well as in kitchens. Thyme has long been used in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine and is popular in North America. Let’s take a look at what makes thyme a wonder herb.

Thyme is a shrub with a woody stem and tender small leaves that has been around for more than 5,000 years. Its botanical name is thymus vulgaris, was derived from the Greek word thymon, which means to fumigate. Thyme grows wild in the Provence region of France, where it is believed to have originated. Ancient Egyptians used it in mummification while the Greeks used it as incense in temples. The ancient Greeks believed bees that fed on thyme flowers produced the sweetest of all honeys. Romans added thyme to their baths in hopes of promoting vigor.

The most commonly used variety of thyme is the French one, which explains the many uses French cooks have for this fragrant herb. More than one hundred varieties exist including lemon thyme, orange thyme, silver thyme and anise thyme.

Photo by Cookbookman17/Flickr

The French use thyme liberally. It is one of the ingredients in the spice mix herbes de Provence the bouquet garni, herbs wrapped in cheesecloth which are added to soups and stocks and removed at the end of the cooking process. Sprigs of thyme are added to famous French dishes like the seafood stew bouillabaisse and coq au vin.

Thyme is also very popular in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. The herb is the principal component of the spice mix za’atar, which also contains toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Of course, thyme is also one of the most popular herbs used in North American cuisine. It is added to everything, from roasted chicken to clam chowders.

Ideally, you would keep a pot of thyme by your windowsill, just like you would basil. If you don’t opt for growing your own, you can always buy some at the grocery store. When buying fresh thyme, look for evenly colored leaves and a strong aroma.

Thyme is very popular in its dried form, which makes it even more pungent. Dried thyme is actually cheaper than the fresh variety, when compared by weight. When buying dried thyme look for leaves that are grayish green and packaging that is free of debris.

Photo of lemon thyme by Frostnova/Flickr

Wrap fresh thyme in a damp paper towel and store in the refrigerator. It should keep fresh for about a week. Dried thyme will keep for over a year if stored in an airtight container and tucked away in a dark cupboard.

Don’t be fooled by thyme’s small leaves. They are full of thymol, a powerful essential oil that is packed with antiseptic properties. This makes thyme ideal in fighting a myriad of infections and diseases including bronchitis, gingivitis and hypertension.