Although thyme and oregano are similar-looking herbs, each has unique features and aromas. Learn 10 key differences between thyme and oregano, their uses, and their benefits.
I grow both herbs in my herb garden and use them almost daily, whether brewing them in tea or adding flavor to otherwise ordinary dishes such as pizza, potatoes, or grilled vegetables. One technique that has proven exceptionally useful is infusing them in oils. This allows the oils to capture their distinct aromas and flavors, providing a versatile condiment for various uses.
Despite their unique aromas and tastes, thyme and oregano share a similar appearance, making it challenging for many to distinguish them at first glance. I have highlighted 10 key differences that will help you confidently differentiate between them.
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1. Plant type: Are they the same herb?
Thyme and oregano belong to the same mint family, Lamiaceae, which already indicates that there are similarities between them. However, they come from different branches of that family, like other culinary herbs, such as basil, mint, or lemon balm.
Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the most widespread and commonly known species of the Thymus genus. However, different varieties of thyme, such as lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) or wild (Thymus serpyllum), are also widely used. Each type of thyme is different, but all have some degree of minty, lemony, and slightly sweet flavors.
While Origanum vulgare (common oregano) remains the most used species of oregano in culinary uses, there are other varieties of oregano, like Greek oregano, Italian, Mexican, or Cuban, that are widely used in the countries from which they derive their names. Make sure you differentiate oregano from marjoram (Origanum majorana).
2. Appearance: Thyme vs Oregano
Their leaves look different. While thyme leaves are small and narrow and grayish-green in color, oregano leaves, on the other hand, have a broader and oval shape and are dark green.
To distinguish different types of thyme, look at their leaves. For example, if the leaves have a fuzzy texture and a gray color, it indicates that you have Wooly Thyme, while if the leaves are gray-green with silver edges, you have Silver Thyme.
Flowers of thyme develop in dense clusters with tiny blooms, while oregano flowers form looser clusters.
As for the colors, Thymus vulgaris has small white flowers, while its wild variety Thymus serpyllum, has pretty purple flowers. Oregano, on the other hand, has pale to dark purple hue flowers.
As for the stems, thyme has more rigid and woody stems, while oregano has softer and more flexible stems. These differences in appearance make it easier to tell thyme and oregano apart when you see them in a garden or at the store.
3. Flavor profiles
Thyme has a delicate and earthy flavor with subtle notes of mint and lemon. When used in cooking, it adds a pleasant and aromatic touch to dishes without overpowering them. The hints of mint and lemon create a refreshing and herbaceous taste in dishes like this Osso buco.
On the other hand, oregano (or sweet marjoram) presents a more pungent profile. It carries a distinct combination of bitterness and a mild peppery flavor. Oregano's strong flavor can add depth and intensity to dishes like this Swiss steak. Its bitter notes contribute a unique and slightly tangy taste, while the spiciness adds a subtle kick. With a sweet undertone, oregano adds a flavor sensation to dishes, making it one of the most popular spices.
Don't be afraid to use them together, they complement each other very well, this olive salad is proof of that.
Both popular herbs are available, dried or fresh. And dried oregano is ever stronger than fresh. It is even stronger if you crush its dried leaves in a mortar before using them in recipes.
Thyme has a delightful and herbaceous aroma, often pleasant and inviting. The scent carries subtle hints of lemon and mint, contributing to its fresh and aromatic character. When thyme is used in cooking or infused with oils, its fragrance can fill the air, creating an enticing and comforting ambiance in the kitchen.
In contrast, oregano possesses a more potent and distinctive fragrance that is easily recognizable. Its aroma is intense and robust, with a characteristic intensity that sets it apart. The scent of oregano is strong, earthy, and somewhat spicy. When I use oregano in the kitchen, its fragrance permeates the air, evoking a sense of warmth and richness.
5. Culinary Uses
The contrasting aromas of thyme and oregano contribute to their culinary uses.
Thyme in dishes requiring longer cooking, such as stews, soups, marinades, gravies, roasts, and braises. Its flavor tends to develop and deepen with extended cooking. Thyme pairs well with any type of meat, including chicken, beef, pork, veal, lamb, and fish. The secret to any truly spectacular meat recipe is the blend of herbs and spices like rosemary or parsley.
Conversely, oregano is popular in Mediterranean cuisine. Its use in Italian and Greek dishes like pizza, pasta sauces (this Enchilada sauce is my favorite), marinades, and grilled meats is very common. Oregano goes with bold meats such as beef or lamb, I love to use it on grilled vegetables or in salad dressings. It is an excellent addition to pickled vegetables too, such as this Giardiniera recipe.
6. Health benefits
These herbs add flavor to our food and have many health benefits. So even if we don't eat a lot of them, their importance is unquestionable.
While both thyme and oregano possess antioxidant properties, thyme, in addition, contains thymol that can fight against germs and fungi, thus considered antimicrobial and antifungal. On the other hand, oregano contains carvacrol that can help kill bacteria, so it is known for its antibacterial properties.
7. Medicinal uses for thyme and oregano.
Thyme has been traditionally used to support respiratory health, alleviate coughs, and soothe sore throats. It is also believed to have digestive benefits and may aid in digestion. The easiest way to get all thyme benefits is to make thyme tea. Oregano is associated with potential anti-inflammatory properties and may support the immune system.
You may be familiar with Thyme essential oil, a concentrated oil extracted from the thyme plant with distinct fragrance and therapeutic properties. It is often used in aromatherapy to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and uplift the mood. On the contrary, Oregano oil is used for its antimicrobial qualities.
8. Growing oregano and thyme. Can they grow together?
Yes, thyme and oregano can grow together in the same garden or even pot. They are both hardy herbs that require similar growing conditions, making them compatible companions. Many herb gardeners often grow oregano and thyme side by side as they both like well-draining soil, ample sunlight, and moderate watering. Like thyme, oregano grows best in temperatures between 19-26 degrees Celsius (66-79 degrees Fahrenheit) the most. But even if it gets really cold and freezes, they can handle it just fine. The leaves might fall off, but don't worry; they'll grow back again when it gets warmer. These herbs are tough and can bounce back from tough times.
Growing thyme and oregano together can have benefits. They can create a visually appealing herb garden with their contrasting leaf shapes and colors. Additionally, the aromatic compounds released by both herbs can deter certain pests, acting as natural insect repellents for each other and neighboring plants.
When planting thyme and oregano together, make sure to provide them with adequate space to grow and spread. So, search for a horizontal planter that is wide enough to accommodate them. Regular pruning and harvesting can help maintain the health and productivity of both herbs.
9. History and origins
While both thyme and oregano have Mediterranean origins, they have distinct historical backgrounds. Thyme is a plant whose use can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks. In contrast, oregano is strongly associated with Italian and Greek culinary traditions.
Ancient Egyptians and Greeks recognized thyme's therapeutic properties and used it in various remedies. Thyme's popularity spread throughout Europe during the Roman era, where it became a common ingredient in cooking and was also used for its aromatic qualities.
On the other hand, oregano originates in the Mediterranean and Eurasian regions, particularly in Italian and Greek cuisines. The name "oregano" is derived from the Greek words "oros," meaning mountain, and "ganos," meaning joy or delight, reflecting the herb's natural habitat in mountainous regions. The ancient Greeks and Romans highly regarded oregano for its flavor and medicinal properties.
10. What are the differences between oregano and thyme's nutritional value?
Given that these plants are within the same plant family, these two herbs have similar nutritional profiles and offer a range of beneficial compounds. They are both rich in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin K, vitamin C, and manganese.
Thyme contains a higher concentration of vitamin C, whereas oregano tends to have more vitamin K.
Overall, both thyme and oregano are nutritious herbs that can contribute to a healthy diet. While their individual nutrient compositions may differ slightly, incorporating them into your meals can provide various benefits and flavors.
Can I use thyme instead of oregano?
Thyme and oregano share a remarkably similar taste, making thyme an excellent substitute for oregano.
In fact, it's common to use thyme and oregano together in recipes because their flavors and aromas complement each other perfectly.
Although there is a slight difference in flavor, thyme lacks the pronounced citrus-like zing that oregano possesses.
When using thyme as a substitute for oregano, remember that thyme stalks are woody and tougher. To incorporate thyme into your dish, it's best to strip the leaves off the stalks and add them rather than using the whole stalks.
It's important to note that various thyme varieties are available, each with its own distinct flavor. If you're aiming to replicate the taste of oregano, the closest match would be French thyme or English thyme.
Can I use oregano in place of thyme?
Of course, it also works the other way around.
Just make sure the ratio is correct. For example, when substituting fresh thyme with fresh oregano, use a 1:1 ratio. Again, a 1:1 ratio works well for dried thyme to dried oregano. However, if you're substituting fresh oregano for dried thyme, use double the amount of oregano. On the other hand, when substituting dried oregano for fresh thyme, use half the amount of dried oregano for the specified quantity of fresh thyme. This adjustment is necessary as dried herbs can be potent and may affect the balance of your recipe.
When a recipe calls for thyme sprigs to be tied together in a bouquet garni, use sprigs of oregano or marjoram.