Thyme is the sort of herb I notice people are a bit finicky about, they either love it or hate it. Well I am one of those who love it. I’ve always loved thyme, not only the smell but the taste. I admit that ground or dried thyme has a tendency to have a rather pungent aroma, and a slightly bitter flavor, but trust me when I tell you there is nothing like fresh thyme. It’s beautiful and delicate, and I love the smell of it wafting in from the garden on a breezy summer day. It’s also one of those few spices that’s either perfect in winter or summer.
Thyme (Thymus) is a perennial plant, with an interesting and longstanding history of culinary and medicinal use. The Ancient Egyptians used to use thyme for embalming their deceased Pharaohs. While the Ancient Greeks believed thyme was a symbol of courage and admiration. They used it frequently for it’s aromatic properties in their bathes and as incense to burn in their sacred temples. The spread of thyme throughout Europe is said to be due to the Romans, who once used it to purify rooms and to give certain cheeses and liqueurs an aromatic or pungent flavor. Throughout the Middle Ages Thyme remained a symbol of bravery where it became a common ritual for woman to give knights and warriors gifts that included thyme leaves. Most popular among these gifts were embroidered scarves pinned with thyme sprigs, since the herb was said to give the bearer courage during battle. Also during this time period thyme was placed beneath pillows to be used as a sleep aid and to ward off nightmares. Thyme was also routinely placed atop coffins as it was suppose to assure safe passage into the next life. Since the 16th century thyme oil has been used extensively for it’s antiseptic properties, both as mouthwash and as a topical agent.
Thyme is native to Southern Europe, The Mediterranean region, and Asia, but is also now commonly cultivated in North America.
Thyme has a long history of use in natural medicine. The Essential oil of common thyme is made up of 20-54% thymol, which is an antiseptic and interestingly the main ingredient in Listerine mouthwash. Before the advent of modern antibiotics thyme oil was used to medicate bandages. It’s also used as an active ingredient in natural, alcohol free hand sanitizers. Thyme is also used medicinally for respiratory infections and problems including cough, bronchitis, and chest congestion. Since it’s antiseptic thyme boiled in water and then cooled is very effective against inflamation of the throat when gargled three times daily. The thymol and other volatile components in the leaves are excreted via the lungs, which are highly lipid-soluble, where it reduces the amount and intensity of the mucus and releases it’s antimicrobial activity..
In lab studies conducted on rats, thymol has also been found to protect and significantly increase the percentage of healthy fats found in cell membranes and other cell structures. In particular the amount of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) in the brain, kidney and heart cell membranes increased after dietary supplementation with thyme. However other studies conducted have found that thyme was most effective when introduced early in the life cycle as opposed to being introduced later in the aging process as a way of offsetting the problems of the brain that occur with aging.
The volatile oil components of thyme have also shown to have antimicrobial effects against a slew of different bacteria and fungi. Research now shows that both thyme and basil contain components that can both prevent contamination as well as decontaminate previously contaminated food. In these studies published in Food Microbiology researchers found that thyme essential oil was able to decontaminate lettuce inoculated with Shigella. (An infectious organism that triggers diarrhea and can cause significant intestinal damage) In addition washing produce in solutions containing either basil or thyme oil in a very low concentration of just 1% resulted in dropping the number of Shigella bacteria below the point by which they could be detected. Scientists are now using this research to make new natural food preservatives.
If that wasn’t enough thyme also contains a number of important flavonoids which increase thymes antioxidant capacity, combined with its status as a good source of manganese thyme is an antioxidant rich food. With the added bonus of also being a good source of vitamin K, iron, calcium and dietary fiber.
There are many wonderful things you can do with thyme, but one of my favorite ways to use it is to mix the fresh leaves in with a salad vinaigrette. I feel like thyme pairs especially well with salads. It’s also good with tomato based dishes, or sprinkled over simple roasted or broiled tomatoes and peppers. It’s wonderful used in Mediterranean style cuisine, fantastic when paired with asparagus. It’s just a really wonderful herb that can be used in so many creative ways. Personally I like it best fresh, but I do tend to use the dried and ground varieties more frequently, especially since I’m not growing thyme this year, the dried varieties are just on hand more often, so go forth and experiment, and enjoy thyme in all it’s wondrous glory.
Happy and Healthy Eating to you!