Every herb, every spice, every umami building liquid, every type of cheese even, can either play a specific role in cooking or have such a variety of uses that it can be a trifle overwhelming. Why not start there? I imagine that many people who wish to cook, look at everything available in their supermarket, or every recipe available on the internet and wonder, “Where on earth do I start?”. That’s why I am a firm believer in general ideas and techniques that can be applied to multiple cooking scenarios.
That is a big part of the reason I am so drawn to thyme. You can add it to virtually any savory dish (sometimes less savory ones as well; I sprinkled a touch of dried thyme on some candied nuts I was making and they turned out fantastic.) and it will magnify the flavors of your ingredient without overwhelming them, while at the same time keeping a low profile, causing your tasters to wonder, “What on earth you put in this…” or “When did you learn how to cook like this?….”, or “Can you tell me how you make this? It must be so complicated.” Which is when you smile and say that you just boiled the squash or potatoes or rice, or you just threw the tomatoes or zucchini or peppers in the oven to roast; that it took hardly any work, and the only ingredients you used were oil, s+p, and thyme. “Thyme?” “Yeah.” Then they’ll usually give you a really confused look like they’re wondering who in their right mind buys thyme, or isn’t that something you only need in restaurants?
If you are me, you will then crush some between your fingers and force them to inhale deeply. But do use your own good judgement when considering if you should move on to that step.
Thyme has been around for centuries. Sorry to start with such an obvious remark, but the interesting part was that it was used for properties other than just cooking. The Romans especially attributed to it the power of warding off poison, and would eat it raw before or during a meal for this purpose. Or they would infuse their baths with it if they thought they were the subject of foul play. Thyme does contain the chemical compound thymol, which is still used in antiseptic or germ killing products to this day. Thyme tea is still a common remedy against throat or stomach infections. Thyme’s supposed anti-poison properties also made it a common weapon against the Black Death. Pouches of thyme were worn around the neck, and poultices of thyme were applied to blistered skin.
The Romans also popularized the idea of thyme being associated with or inspiring bravery, and would be given sprigs of the herb on their way to war. They would wear them in pockets or purses, and keep the sprigs with them during battle. “Thymon” in Greek means courage, so this part of its history is included right in the name.
So, it wasn’t until Monasteries in the Middle Ages started using thyme commonly in their simple breads and roasts that it picked up real speed as a truly worthy culinary herb.
Thyme has a very perfumey flowery smell. Like I said, because it does not overpower, it acts as a really good addition to most vegetables and proteins, as well as breads and other baked goods. Fresh time is really worth the splurge, as the oils have a much easier time of seeping into the entire stew or chicken, depending on what you are cooking. While dried thyme, and all dried herbs, has a stronger more concentrated flavor, it does not spread throughout the whole dish half as much as fresh stuff. Slightly crush the fresh herb and add it to your mixture early on, so it has time to meld with the other ingredients. Or just throw an entire sprig on top of some vegetable to roast, and the amount of depth it adds will astound you. Whether or not you feel like chopping it, or just tossing it in, going for the fresh, or rubbing the dry into powder, you’ll find that thyme is the easiest way to build flavor without sacrificing ease or time. If you don’t have poultry seasoning, thyme, and a little sage if you have it, are basically the biggest components of that, and if you by them separately you can use them for stuff other than just poultry.
Try lemon or french thyme as well, and you will be in for a slightly surprising, more nuanced and pronounced flavor that still pairs well with most protein, especially neutral tasting fish.