The herb guide: thyme

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and regular Borough blogger Ed Smith looks in-depth at the many fresh herbs available in the Market. This month: thyme

We all, I suspect, know thyme pretty well.

Along with lavender, sage and rosemary, thyme is usually classified as a ‘woody herb’, though increasingly I find the bunches I buy are green and soft. The newest shoots of cultivated bushes, I suspect.

Whatever the colour or ‘woodiness’ of the sprig, thyme leaves are always little, round, and fragrant. It’s a member of the mint family, so there’s a distant hint of menthol. I’d add ‘sweet’ and ‘warm’ as the notes I pick up. Maybe a little clove, too.

Though there are many members of the thyme family, Britain’s grocers tend to major on ‘common’ or ‘garden’ thyme and lemon thyme. The latter has a slightly variegated leaf and an obvious citrus smell and taste. I personally love running my hands through thyme and then copping a smell of the aroma. But that’s probably more than you need to know for the purposes of this piece.

I find that thyme lasts longer than most herbs in the fridge, if you leave it in the plastic wrap you bought it in or follow the wet towel approach. One week is the minimum I’d expect.

However, it’s also more amenable to other preservation measures, should you need to make a bunch last longer. For example, of all the herbs, I’m happiest to put thyme in the freezer if I have to. Frozen leaves can be quickly stripped off a sprig into a stew or sauce and have almost the same impact as if they were fresh.

Make sure you keep the herb in a sealed ziplock bag, though, as those leaves do come off easily and will happily scatter themselves throughout your iced drawers. My wife always seems really pleased when this happens.

Thyme dries pretty well too. Spread sprigs out on a cloth or tray and leave in a warm and well-ventilated place before storing for future use. Or throw the last sprigs of a bunch into a spare bottle of oil to perk up your salad dressings.

Cooking tips
The leaves hold the most flavour. They’re also stripped from their woody-ish sprigs very easily if you run your thumb and forefinger in the opposite direction to the growth of the green.

That said, if you’re making a casserole, stew, or even roasting root veg, it’s worth keeping the thyme sprigs whole, and just making sure you remove the stringy left overs before serving up.

Traditionally, thyme is known as a herb that takes heat reasonably well and spreads its flavour through its partners while being cooked. However, I often find myself scattering thyme leaves over other ingredients at the last minute, particularly when those leaves are really young, soft and green.

Classic uses
Goodness, there are so many classic pairings and uses across numerous different cuisines, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

In European cooking, you’ll know thyme as a warming background note in many tomato or cheese-based sauces. It provides a sweet herby note to a ragu or a sausage casserole and is never unwelcome as an extra flavouring for a béchamel, whether that’s to be used on macaroni, cauliflower or something equally moreish.

Thyme is the perfect partner for mushrooms. Add a scattering of thyme leaves when your ‘shrooms are four-fifths fried, and you’ll reap the rewards from the moment the herb hits the pan.

It’s also well matched with pork, whether chops, roast loin, belly or otherwise. You’ll find it’s the herb of choice in many recipes featuring those cuts.

It’s often used in tandem with lemon. Imagine a lemon, thyme and garlic marinade, or chopped with lemon zest and garlic and used fresh over roast lamb like a gremolata; or just settle back, midweek, to a supper of lemon and thyme linguine. Oh, and lemon, thyme and onion, breadcrumb and suet stuffing is my favourite accompaniment with turkey—maybe one for this year’s bird?

Pumpkin, squash, sweet potato and carrots all enjoy the company of thyme, so you’re likely to see or taste this herb when any or all of those things are roasted, or as a background note in a soup of the same.

Thyme is also a common ingredient in the food of the Middle East, specifically as part of the herb and spice blend za’atar. This mix of thyme, oregano and sesame seeds (among other things) is sprinkled over oily flat breads, bourekas and eggs.

Of course thyme can be used in less obvious surroundings too—not least at pudding, er, time.

Add a sprig of thyme to the caramel base of your next tarte tatin; sprinkle in some leaves when stewing apples for a charlotte or crumble; fold through the batter of a lemon drizzle cake (and scatter over the finished article too); maybe even include thyme leaves when making a peach melba or concocting a bellini.

Market herb hero
Though technically a little close to home given my involvement in the business, my Market herb hero for thyme is Cannon & Cannon, for the use of that herb in their Monmouthshire veal, lemon and thyme salami. The thyme is the flavour that brings the meat, fat and citrus together in this wonderful dried sausage. It’s well worth seeking out.

A recipe suggestion
The puddings mentioned above got me thinking about a warming fruit and herb crumble and a thyme-infused custard. While apples work in tandem with the thyme very nicely indeed, I’m a sucker for quinces and think you will be too once you try the perfumed stewed fruit of this crumble, enhanced by a few sprigs of thyme.