One of the many fresh herbs used in many Italian kitchens. The aromatic flavor of thyme complements Southern Italian sauces of hot peppers and eggplants, as well as being a primary herb in soups and stews.
If you’re lucky enough to have plenty of thyme growing in your garden, you might want to do as the ancient Romans did… bathe in it! Greeks and Romans are believed to have added this herb directly to their baths; and oil extracts from the plant were used to make bath and massage oils. Not surprisingly, this aromatic herb was also used as incense. Thyme was associated with health and vigor, and believed to strengthen and purify the body. Today, its essential oil, thymol, still has many therapeutic applications – it is widely used as an antiseptic and disinfectant, and infusions of thyme are believed to be an excellent remedy for respiratory and throat ailments … and even hangovers! Thyme is also said to help in the digestion of fatty foods.
But the culinary applications of this Mediterranean herb, which is now cultivated in many regions of the world, are what interests us most here. Thyme is widely used in Italian cooking – where it is know as “timo, pronounced “tee-mo” – and even more so in French cuisine. Though there are something like 300 varieties of this herb, the most common types used in cooking are Thymus vulgaris (common thyme), Thymus citriodorus (citrus thyme, Thymus herba-barona (caraway thyme) and Thymus serpillum (wild thyme) – which is often found in United States. Common thyme, the variety most often found in Italy, is a perennial plant, six to twelve inches tall, with tiny oval leaves and a particular, pungent aroma.
When cooking with thyme be sure to add it early in the process so the oils and flavor have time to be released. This herb is great when used fresh, and goes well in many typical southern Italy pasta sauces which often feature peppers and eggplants. Thyme also is a great complement for many vegetables, including tomatoes and roasted potatoes. Many grilled and oven roasted fish recipes, such as spigola (sea bass) ortriglie al forno (mullets), call for thyme. For roasted and grilled meats, thyme marries well with sage and rosemary. When you grill, you can get great results if you marinate the meat for a few hours before grilling with those three herbs (thyme, sage and rosemary), along with good quality Italian olive oil and pepper. Thyme is often used in stocks and stews – it is an essential component of the bouquet garni and herbes de Provence that are often used in Italian cooking – and in aromatic oils as well.