What Is Thyme?

Uses, Benefits, and Recipes

Lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus), overhead view
Liz Whitaker/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Thyme (pronounced "time") is used in a number of cuisines, including European, British, Mediterranean, African, Latin and Central American, regional American, and the Caribbean. It can be added to dishes whole or use the destemmed leaves. Fresh and dried thyme is available in the supermarket. The thyme plant is robust and hardy and will proliferate in your home garden during growing months or in an indoor planter year-round.

What Is Thyme?

Thyme is an herb whose small leaves grow on clusters of thin stems. Thyme is used to season all kinds of dishes, either by itself or as part of a blend or bouquet garni alongside other common herbs like rosemary, sage, and marjoram. Fit for every diet and very rarely considered an allergen, thyme can be consumed by anyone looking to cook with fresh herbs.

Varieties of Thyme

Common thyme and lemon thyme are the varieties most often used in cooking. Lemon thyme looks similar to common thyme but offers a distinctive lemon aroma and flavor. You may also encounter woolly thyme, creeping thyme, wild thyme, and elfin thyme—all of which are better suited for rock garden filler than culinary use.

Thyme Plant
h_dog/Flickr 
Dried Thyme
 robbertholf/Flickr
Holding Thyme
 tylerkellen/Flickr

Origins

The origins of thyme can be traced back to ancient societies throughout the Mediterranean, though it’s now grown and cooked with all over the world. Its uses have not always been purely culinary, however. There is evidence of ancient Egyptians utilizing thyme’s powerful antiseptic properties in embalming rituals. The Romans considered the herb a symbol of bravery and strength—particularly with regards to military prowess—and would exchange it among themselves, pin sprigs to their garments before battle, and burn bunches of it to purify the air in homes and places of worship.

During the Black Death in the Middle Ages, thyme’s active antiseptic compound, thymol, was thought to protect from infection, and it was used to treat skin lesions caused by the disease. Later, thyme was considered an indication of the presence of mythical fairies. Throughout its documented history, thyme has been incorporated into food preservation methods, owing to its pleasant herbal flavor and antibacterial properties. 

Fresh vs. Dried

While dried thyme possesses a nearly identical flavor profile to its fresh counterpart, it typically needs to be rehydrated—whether on its own or during the cooking process (i.e. adding to a braised dish or bread dough)—in order to display its full range. Dried thyme leaves can be substituted for fresh in any application, but use one-third as much dried thyme as you would use fresh.

What Does It Taste Like?

Fresh thyme has a pronounced, concentrated herbal flavor with sharp grass, wood, and floral notes (like lavender and rosemary). Lemon thyme’s lemon fragrance is the most prominent note in that variety. 

Cooking With Thyme

Thyme can be used in its whole form, or by picking individual leaves from the stem with a gentle pinching motion at the base of each leaf cluster.

Thyme leaves can be added, whole or chopped, to a dish at any stage of cooking. The longer they cook, however, the more flavor they’ll provide. Thyme stems are fibrous and won’t break down during cooking, so if using whole thyme stems, pick them out and discard before serving. If baking with thyme, remove the small individual leaves from the stem beforehand or use dried thyme (which has already been de-stemmed).

The Spruce / Lindsay Kreighbaum.

Recipes With Thyme

Thyme is typically used in savory dishes like braised or roasted meat, vegetables, or fish, as well as in savory baking. It can also be used to add flavor and depth to marinades, soups and stocks, cocktail elements, and teas.

Substitutions

Thyme’s flavor is similar enough to dried or fresh rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram, or dried basil (not fresh) that any of the five could be substituted for fresh or dried thyme.

how to substitute herbs illustration
Grace Kim. 

Where to Buy Thyme

Buy packaged fresh thyme in the refrigerated produce section year-round and dried leaves in the spice aisle. You can also find thyme at many farmers markets. Select a bunch with abundant, bright green leaf clusters on long stems featuring multiple sprigs. Fresh thyme is typically sold in the supermarket in 1-ounce containers, which contain enough of the herb for four to five uses (i.e. one four- to six-serving dish). Dried thyme comes in 0.5- to 1-ounce shakers, and can be bought in bulk 3.5- or 32-ounce containers at restaurant supply stores.

Storage

Store fresh thyme loosely wrapped in a damp paper towel, inside a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator, for up to two weeks. Discard once the leaves begin to turn brown.

Once removed from the stem, thyme leaves will stay fresh in a small sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Dried thyme will retain its potency tightly sealed in a glass or plastic container in a cool, dark place for up to three years. While it does not technically expire, the dried herb’s essential oils will degrade and rapidly lose their flavor beyond that time.

Health Benefits of Thyme

Thyme has a wide range of medicinal and home uses, owing to its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Its active compound, thymol, is used in personal hygiene and home sanitizing products. Thyme is also beneficial in aromatherapy, providing relief from respiratory ailments and stimulating immune and circulatory responses. In holistic medicine, thyme essential oil can be used diluted in compounds (never on its own, as the oil can be toxic in high concentrations) to relieve and heal infections of the skin and mouth. Holistic or homeopathic use of thyme should be avoided in children and pregnant or nursing women. The oil should also never be ingested; instead, make the leaves into a tea or dilute the essential oil for a soothing compress.