Oregano vs Thyme? Differences [Which One Is The Best?]


Thyme and oregano are mainstays in the culinary world, recognized by different cultures for the exciting new tastes they can bring to a dish. Though difficult to distinguish when dried and cut, these herbs are distinct from one another when fresh – their taste and smell spell a world of difference.

Oregano’s strengths lie in its more pungent taste and aroma whereas thyme’s strengths lie in its ability to complement a dish by making it lighter and more aromatic. Both are extremely tasteful and healthy additions to any dish due to their flavor profile and essential oils.

We know that their use in the kitchen is commonplace but there’s more to learn from knowing what they look, smell, and taste like. The article below will guide you in the recommended application of thyme in your meals and your gardens.

Oregano and Thyme

Coming from the same family, these herbs share many similarities. However, their origins, history, traditional use, and culinary applications show some revealing differences between them.

Taxonomy, Geography, and History

Oregano (origanum vulgare) is a member of the plant family Lamiaceae. These plants are flowering plants endemic to temperate regions. They are commonly found in Eurasia and the Mediterranean. In these areas, oregano infusions were used as folk remedies against stomach aches and colds.

Oregano reached the United States when Italian were still using it. It became more popular after World War 2 when American soldiers brought the herb back home from the Italian campaign.

Thyme (thymus vulgaris) is also a member of the plant family Lamiaceae. These plants are subshrubs endemic to temperate regions. They grow in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In these areas, especially during the Ancient Egyptian and Roman periods, thyme was used as a pain reliever and a cure for poisons.

Perceptual and Sensory Differences

Given that both herbs come from the same family, it would necessarily mean they share similar properties. Though regional varieties may differ in some aspects, this is a general overview of the standard varieties. Here is a table to list down the differences.

Appearance

Oregano’s leaves are vibrant green, spade-shaped, fuzzy to smooth, and grow in clusters. Thyme’s leaves are green to grayish-green; very tiny (2mm at most) spear shape leaves in clusters.

Oregano can grow to 1-3 ft. tall and 2-4 ft wide. The stems are hairy when young but later on become woody with age. Thyme can grow 6-12 inches tall and up to 18 inches wide. Thyme’s stems are soft at the top where the young shoots grow; stiff and woody at the bottom.

Oregano’s flowers come in white, pink, light purple flowers and grow in clusters. Thyme’s flowers come in white to lilac and they grow in clusters.

Taste

Oregano’s taste can be described as spicy, pungent, peppery, astringent, bitter, sharp; dependent on the type of oregano.

Thyme’s taste can be described as gentle, slightly minty, lemony, subtle, and “dry”; dependent on the type of thyme.

Smell

Oregano has often been described as pungent and peppery.

Thyme is very aromatic with a woody smell that vaguely reminds rosemary

Protip: Healthy thyme will leave a strong smell (lasting a few seconds) once you rub the leaves with your fingers. This is not the case with oregano.

The Nutritional Value

The change in nutritional value and properties depends on the plant. The drying process also affects said nutritional value. For some, the drying process enhances and empowers these properties, while for others these properties are toned down in exchange for longer storage life.

A basic nutritional profile of oregano and thyme can be gleaned in the table below. A more scientific and detailed breakdown of their nutritional profile can be seen below (from Nutritional Value Org, more in the sources).

Plant PropertiesOregano
(Dried, 1 g)
Oregano
(Fresh, 1 g)
Thyme
(Dried, 1 g)
Thyme
(Fresh, 1 g)
Calories2.7 2.72.81
Fat0 g0 g 0.1 g0 g
Sodium0.3 mg0.25 mg0.5 mg0.1 mg
Protein0.1 g0.1 g0.1 g0.1 g
Total Carbohydrates0.7 g 0.689 g0.6 g0.2 g
Vitamin D0 g0 g0 g0 g
Calcium15.97 mg15.97 mg18.9 mg4.05 mg
Iron0.368 mg0.37 mg1.24 mg0.1745 mg
Potassium13 mg12.6 mg8.1 mg6.1 mg
Nutritional Facts of Oregano and Thyme (Dried & Fresh)

Given that these plants are within the same plant family, they share nearly the same nutritional values. Fresh versus dried oregano is nearly the same in all respects. Fresh versus dried thyme shows some interesting results as dried thyme is more nutritious than fresh thyme.

All in all, oregano and thyme have near-identical nutritional profiles. While thyme may have higher Calcium, Oregano has higher Potassium. Dried and fresh oregano or thyme have little to no deviation in nutritional content.

Essential Oils of Thyme and Oregano

Both thyme and oregano contain the same organic compounds, notwithstanding regional varieties. Thymol, a phenol, is present in both which might help in improving the person’s overall well-being. This compound has antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and anesthetic properties, among others.

Both thyme and oregano contain the same organic compounds which are good for the body.

How to Identify Oregano from Thyme Spice

In its processed form, oregano and thyme do look similar, leaving reliable identification only by reading the label. In the absence of a label, these two herbs can be easily identified through taste or the distinct physical appearance of their dried forms.

Dried Oregano and Thyme

Processed store-bought dried oregano spice is can come coarsely or finely ground or shredded. The spice would take on a browning yellow-green to brown color. The brownness of the spice depends on how long the spice has been aging.

Processed store-bought dried thyme spice is often ground and shredded in a way that looks like tiny strands of plant matter taking on a greying light green to brown color.

Fresh Oregano and Thyme

Both plants are easily distinguished from one another in their fresh form. The table above gives a key description of not only their appearance but also their taste and aroma.

Culinary Applications

General Use of Oregano and Thyme

Oregano adds “punch” to a dish. Its stronger and sharper flavor will strongly contrast against lighter flavors. Oregano is a common ingredient in Italian cuisine, tomato-based, olive oil-based dishes. Oregano is often applied to increase flavor through force.

Thyme goes well with rosemary, sage, garlic, onion, cayenne, and other sauces and seasonings. It is a versatile herb that adds a lot to a dish by making a dish taste “lighter,” more floral, and more aromatic.

Meat, especially gamey ones, can be tamed by adding thyme to add flavor and lighten the taste profile. The flavors of vegetable dishes are enhanced, giving them more “zing.”

Oregano and Thyme can be used at the same time or as substitutes to one another.

Oregano and Thyme Chicken

Both can be used together in the same dish. The effectiveness of their application is contingent on the skill of the cook in applying the proper ratio of spices, herbs, and ingredients.

Easy Chicken Oregano recipe

Steak: Oregano or Thyme?

A person’s preference for their herbs and spices on their steak is as unique as to how they like their steak done. If you want a lighter flavor, use thyme. If you want, a stronger, more pungent flavor, go for oregano.

Gordon Ramsay, in this video, used thyme for his steak. However, do not be deterred from using other herbs and spices. Cooking is the realm of imagination. Experiment and know what’s best for you.

Gordon Ramsay's ULTIMATE COOKERY COURSE: How to Cook the Perfect Steak

Pesto: Oregano or Thyme?

Pesto, an Italian sauce consisting of pine nuts, salt, basil, leaves, hard cheese, and olive oil, can be a possible dish to incorporate thyme or oregano into.

Thyme’s lighter profile may be better suited to pesto’s garlic and basil taste, and creamy texture.

Oregano on the other hand may prove too pungent or strong so a lighter variety of oregano might be required to complement pesto’s flavor. Ornamental oregano is a possible candidate since it has a milder flavor compared to Greek Oregano or Mexican oregano.

Za’atar: Middle-Eastern Secret Spice Mix

Za’atar is an exciting spice mix that can trace its history back to Ancient Egypt. It is a widely used spice and popular condiment in North Africa is composed of ground oregano, thyme, marjoram, salt, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. Other varieties add other types of seeds such as coriander or cumin, among others.

Growing Oregano and Thyme

Given the exciting culinary potential and beneficial herbal properties, any cook or gardener would want these herbs in a single pot within arms’ reach and pluck delicious herbs at any time? There are considerations if you do want to go this route.

Different plant, different size

It is important to find a container that is wide enough to sustain this. There are horizontal planters which are 16”-24” or more which would make suitable homes for these plants.

If ever width becomes a concern, harvesting and pruning can help keep the plants within manageable dimensions.

In general oregano and thyme are good plant companions and can grow the same planter with no compatibility issues. This is because they come from the same plant family making their growing requirements are likewise similar. They require indirect sunlight and only moderate watering.

Both of these perennial plants are endemic to temperate regions. They do best in temperatures ranging from 19-26c. They’ll do fine even when it freezes. The leaves will fall and they’ll just grow back again! Resilient stuff!

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Takeaways

  1. Both oregano and thyme are excellent herbs to add some well-needed “zing” or “punch.”
  2. Oregano’s strengths lie in its more pungent taste and odor. It adapts well to dishes needing extra flavor.
  3. Thyme’s strengths lie in its relatively light flavor profile compared to oregano. It complements the dish rather than overpowering it.

Sources

“2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture in Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

“A Culinary Guide to Oregano: Benefits and 11 Uses for Oregano” by n/a in MasterClass

“Antibacterial and antifungal activities of thymol: A brief review of the literature” by Marchese et al in Food Chemistry Volume 210, 1 November 2016

“Chemical composition of essential oil of Thymus vulgaris collected from Saudi Arabian market” by Al-Asmari et al in Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 7(2)

“Easy Chicken Oregano recipe” by Rana’s Kitchen in Youtube

“French Thyme Dried” by n/a in Spice Jungle

“Gordon Ramsay’s ULTIMATE COOKERY COURSE: How to Cook the Perfect Steak” by Hodder Books in Youtube

“History of Oregano” by n/a in InDepthInfo

“Nutritional Value of Thyme, Fresh” by n/a in Nutritional Value Org

“Oregano and Marjoram An Herb Society of America Guide to the Genus Origanum” by Meyers et al in The Herb Society of America

“Oregano essential oil: Effect on sensory acceptability” by Catellan et al in Nutrition & Food Science 45(4)

“The fragrant mint family dominates the herb world” by Barbara Perry Lawton in The Christian Science Monitor

“The History of Thyme” by n/a in MySpicer

“Thymol” by n/a in ScienceDirect

“Thymus vulgaris essential oil: chemical composition and antimicrobial activity” by Boruga et al in J Med Life. 2014 7 (Spec. Iss. 3)

Andrea

A young Italian guy with a passion for growing edible herbs. After moving to the UK 6 years ago in a tiny flat, it was impossible to grow herbs outside. So I start my journey in growing indoor and so I decided to share my knowledge.

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