Adding Flavor With Thyme

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a perennial culinary and medicinal herb that belongs to the mint (Lamiaceae) family, along with basil, beebalm, giant hyssop, ground ivy, lavender, marjoram, oregano,  perilla, rosemary, sage, savory, skullcap, spearmint, and wild bergamot. The family also (surprisingly) includes chia, and (even more surprisingly) coleus and teak. Garden thyme descends from its close relative, Thymus serpyllum, known variously as mother-of-thyme, wild thyme, and creeping thyme.

Thyme leaves are curled, elliptically shaped and very small, measuring about one-eighth of an inch long and one-sixteenth of an inch wide. The upper leaf is green-grey in color on top, while the underside is a whitish color.

The ancient Sumerians were probably the first to cultivate thyme, possibly as early as 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians were the first to discover thyme’s antiseptic properties and used it as an anti-fungal and a disinfectant. The ancient Greeks used to burn thyme in their sacred rituals because of its aromatic smell. The modern genus name, Thymus, comes from the Greek thumos, (Latin fumos) which means “smoke” or “fumigate.” The ancient Greeks would compliment someone by saying that they smelled of thyme. They burned thyme incense in their temples, used sprigs of thyme to preserve wine and fruit, drank thyme tea to prevent nightmares, and grew thyme to nourish their beehives and provide them with a well-known scented honey that is still made on Mount Hymettus today as it was thousands of years ago.

The Roman poet Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC), in his Eclogue, recommended the use of thyme to combat fatigue. According to the writings of the Roman poet Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), the Romans grew thyme extensively for bee culture. The ancient Romans gave thyme to people who seemed melancholic or shy in the belief that thyme’s cheery scent could cure them. Pliny the Elder, who took some thyme plants with him when he moved away from Rome, recommended burning thyme as it “puts to flight all venomous creatures,” and the belief that thyme smoke repelled scorpions was especially widespread. The Romans adopted the Greeks’ symbolism of thyme, with warriors adding thyme to their baths before battles to give themselves a boost of bravery. They used thyme to flavor liquors. According to some sources, 2nd century Roman physician Galen, who it is believed was the first to identify the thymus gland, may have chosen its name because it reminded him of thyme. Galen believed that the thymus gland was the “center of courage and affection.” The Romans also introduced thyme to the British Isles, where it escaped cultivation to become a common sight on slopes and cliffs, where it still grows today.

The ancient Egyptians used thyme when embalming their dead. In Christian tradition, “Our Lady’s bed-straw”, the manger where Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus, was said to have included thyme, so it is sometimes placed in nativity scenes today. Thyme was also associated with the Eve of the Feast of St. Agnes (January 20), on which various rituals, many involving thyme, were said to bring dreams to young women of their future spouses.

During the Middle Ages, thyme was used as a treatment for leprosy, plague, lice, coughs, and digestive problems. European ladies embroidered bees hovering over sprigs of thyme on the scarves of their knights, continuing the association between thyme and bravery. In the Scottish Highlands, warriors drank thyme tea to boost their courage and strength before going into battle. Thyme was grown in many medieval gardens and was subsequently used extensively in Elizabethan borders. In Wales, thyme was planted on graves.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote that Titania, the Queen of the Faeries, often went to “a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,” committing to history the old English tradition that patches of thyme were favorite playgrounds of faeries. Danish and German folklore list patches of wild thyme as a favorite place to find fairies. Thyme oil was a major component of an ‘ungent’ which enabled the user to see fairies but only if the thyme was gathered “neare the side of a hill where fayries used to be.”

English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654) recommended thyme as a remedy for nightmares. Thymol, the oil that makes thyme such an effective fungicide, was first extracted in 1719 by Caspar Neumann, an apothecary to the Count of Berlin. Carl Linnaeus, the founder of the modern botanical nomenclature system, recommended a tea of thyme to cure hangovers and headaches. At the turn of the last century, author Rudyard Kipling wrote of “our close-bit thyme that smells/Like dawn in Paradise.” In A Modern Herbal, early 20th century herbalist Maud Grieve recommended planting a large patch of thyme near beehives to nourish them.

The volatile oil components of thyme include carvacrol, borneol, geraniol, and thymol. Thyme can:

  • Protect your cellular membranes against free radical damage: Thymol is the primary volatile oil constituent of thyme. Thymol protects and significantly increase the percentage of healthy fats in cell membranes and other cell structures. In particular, it increases the amount of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) in brain, kidney, and heart cells. Thyme also contains a variety of flavonoids, including apigenin, naringenin, luteolin, and thymonin. These flavonoids increase thyme’s antioxidant capacity, and combined with its manganese, make thyme a powerful antioxidant food. Fresh thyme also contains the antioxidant carotenoids alpha and beta carotene, monoterpenes, phenolic acids, and hydrocinnamic acids.
  • Kill pathogens: The volatile oil components of thyme have antimicrobial activity against many bacteria and fungi, inclucing Staphalococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, and Shigella sonnei. For thousands of years, herbs and spices have been used to help preserve foods and protect them from microbial contamination. Both thyme and basil contain substances that can both prevent contamination and decontaminate foods. Thyme essential oil can decontaminate lettuce inoculated with Shigella, an infectious organism that triggers diarrhea and may cause significant intestinal damage. In addition, washing produce in solution containing either basil or thyme essential oil at the very low concentration of just 1% resulted in dropping the number of Shigella bacteria below the point at which they could be detected. Thymol inhibits the ability of E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus to adhere to human cells, disrupts the bacterial cell wall and causes the cytoplasm to leak out, and is used to treat hookworms and other parasites. Carvacrol is effective against a variety of bacteria and fungi. It makes sense to include thyme and basil in more of your recipes, particularly for foods that are eaten raw. Adding fresh thyme or basil to your next vinaigrette will not only enhance the flavor of your fresh greens, but will help ensure that the produce is safe to eat.
  • Fight inflammation: Thymol, carvacrol, caffeic acid, and luteolin found in thyme are anti-iflammatory.
  • Provide nutrients: Thyme an excellent source of vitamin K, iron, and manganese, a very good source of calcium, and a good source of fiber.

Nutrients in 2 Teaspoons (2.8 grams)Thyme

Nutrient

Amount

DV
(%)

vitamin K

48.01 mcg

60.0

iron

3.46 mg

19.2

manganese

0.22 mg

11.0

calcium

52.92 mg

5.3

fiber

1.04 g

4.2

tryptophan

0.01 g

3.1

Calories

7.73

0.4

Along with fresh sprigs of parsleybasil, and bay leaves, thyme is included in the French combination of herbs called bouquet garni used to season stock, stews, and soups. Thyme is delicious with all types of beans, for example kidney or pinto beans. You can add it to bean stews, casseroles, and other dishes using beans. Add a little thyme to any sauce to go with pasta. Sprinkle it into tofu scrambles. Add thyme to soups and stocks for additional flavor. Use it in marinades for tofu. Sprinkle thyme onto salads. Add it to breadcrumb mixtures and coat vegetables and bake or saute. Use thyme in homemade stuffing for holiday roasts. Sprinkle it over vegetables before grilling. Add thyme to a simple tomato and balsamic vinaigrette salad. Add it to homemade veggie burger or croquette mixtures. Add thyme to dough mixtures for bread and scones.

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