Thyme buttresses and balances other flavors in a dish. Top notes like parsley, onion, garlic, and ginger taste less complex without the minty warmth that thyme contributes to the overall flavor. Unlike rosemary, which tends to dominate other flavors in a dish, thyme shares the spotlight with other herbs graciously, perfuming foods with its warm, aromatic flavor. A few finely chopped leaves added at the last minute bring the other flavors into sharper focus, and it’s equally at home in a caramel sauce served over roasted fruits as it is in baked macaroni and cheese.
Native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean area, Thymus vulgaris is a perennial shrub belonging to the Labiatae, or mint, family. For the broadest culinary use, French thyme (also called summer thyme) and English thyme are the two to look for at your local market, but there are many other variants.
Lemon thyme is a friend of seafood dishes, particularly whole fish poached in an aromatic broth. It’s also wonderful with roasted vegetables like beets, carrots, and fennel. Other variants include a pine-scented thyme native to northern Africa, one from the Azores with the aroma of tangerine, a caraway-scented variety, and even one that mimics oregano.
Thyme doesn’t always have to be permanently added to a dish to impart its flavor. A bouquet garni is a case in point. This classical flavoring for stocks, soups, and sauces consists of thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, and parsley tied into a cheesecloth pouch. The bouquet garni is simmered until it releases its flavors into the liquid. Then it’s discarded, allowing just the essence of its ingredients to remain.
Like any other herb, fresh and dried thyme are not the same thing. But in this case, the dried version has its charms, particularly in a stuffing for poultry. A good rule to follow: Substitute about one teaspoon of the dried for about a tablespoon of the fresh.
Rinse fresh thyme well before using. Pat it dry and then pick the leaves from the stem if you’ll be chopping the thyme (the stems are tough and you don’t want to eat them). Some thyme varieties can be tedious to pick, but English thyme, with its wiry stems, is quite easy: Pinch the top of a sprig between thumb and forefinger. Zip your other thumb and forefinger down the stem, pulling off the leaves as you go.