Thyme is a popular herb that has tiny leaves which grow on the plant’s stem in clusters. Although best known for partnering with rosemary, it is a versatile ingredient used to flavor meat, poultry, vegetables, and even sweet dishes.
There is a range of different thyme varieties but two of the most common sold in stores are regular thyme and lemon thyme. We’re about to take a close look at how these two herbs compare in the kitchen so that you know which is right for your next recipe.
What is the difference between thyme and lemon thyme?
Thyme is a gentle flavored herb that has minty, earthy, and floral flavor notes. Its subtleness is useful in cooking as it doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients in a dish. Lemon thyme has a similar appearance and taste to the regular variety, but it offers a stronger citrus aroma and taste. Lemon thyme also has a softer flavor without the bitterness that thyme will sometimes contribute to food.
Fresh thyme and lemon thyme have a very similar appearance. They both have long stems covered in small green leaves that are spear shaped. To the untrained eye they can be hard to differentiate in the garden, but the variety is easily identified by rubbing a leaf or two together. If a sweet lemony smell fills the air, then it is lemon thyme.
Fresh lemon thyme and normal thyme can be handled in much the same way in the kitchen. They are both versatile herbs that can be used on their own as a seasoning or combined with other popular herbs like sage, marjoram, or rosemary. Common uses for these herbs include adding to soups, sauces, chowders, vegetables, poultry, and for flavoring stuffing.
Lemon thyme, as you would expect, has a more pronounced citrus flavor and aroma so use this herb with a little more caution. Too much lemon can put a meal out of balance easily.
The leaves are vibrant green and delicate, making them excellent for using as a garnish. Sprinkle over fish, vegetables, or heavy meat dishes to add brightness.
Whether you use regular fresh thyme or lemon thyme, remember to add them at the end of cooking. Prolonged heat will mute their flavor and aroma.
Lemon thyme and thyme can be used interchangeably in most recipes.
If you've got no lemon thyme, then we suggest using regular thyme combined with lemon zest. Using 3 teaspoons of leaves with one teaspoon of lemon zest should provide a good ratio. Increase or decrease these quantities based on how much the recipe calls for.
Tip: For more replacement ideas check out our article on lemon thyme substitutes.
Lemon thyme can be used to replace the regular variety but we recommend using it sparingly to avoid overpowering the dish with citrus.
If you've got no lemon thyme or thyme then use oregano, rosemary, marjoram, sage, or dried basil. These substitutes have similar flavor profiles and can be used to replace fresh or dried thyme.
Any variety of thyme is best stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Before placing the herbs in a bag, loosely wrap the sprigs in a damp paper towel. This will help to extend their life.
The leaves will last two weeks when refrigerated, if left on the stem. To save space in the fridge you could also pick the leaves and store them in a small airtight container. Once picked, the leaves will last three days refrigerated.
Store dried thyme in a cool dark place like the pantry for up to three years. Use a plastic or glass container that seals well to ensure no moisture can get to the herbs.
Thyme is believed to have originated from the southern Mediterranean and there are records of it being used by Knights in Roman times. Although it was used as a food, it had many other uses. The herb was thought to provide strength to armor and fight off poison, among other things.
There is more debate about lemon thyme and where it first came from. Originally, people thought it was a hybrid of thyme and lemon, but DNA tests have proved these theories incorrect. Back in 1811 it was first described as a distinct species of its own, and this appears to be correct.
Both thyme and lemon thyme provide a range of useful health benefits including healing infection, alleviating respiratory complications, assisting the circulatory system and stimulating the immune system.
They are packed with Vitamin C and also offer a good source of vitamin A, vitamin E, iron, copper, manganese and fiber.
Summary Comparison Table
|Flavor and aroma||A gentle flavored herb that has minty, earthy, and floral flavor.||Similar to regular thyme but a stronger citrus aroma and flavor.|
|Appearance||Long stems covered in small green leaves that are spear shaped.||Long stems covered in small green leaves that are spear shaped. If a lemon aroma is released when rubbing the leaves together it is lemon thyme.|
|Culinary uses||Adding to soups, sauces, chowders, vegetables, poultry, and for flavoring stuffing.||The same uses as regular thyme. Be careful not to overpower the dish with lemon flavor.|
|Substitutes||Lemon thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, sage, or dried basil||Thyme and lemon zest, or use oregano, rosemary, marjoram, sage, or dried basil|
|Storage||Loosely wrapped in a damp paper towel then stored refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 2 weeks.||Loosely wrapped in a damp paper towel then stored refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 2 weeks.|
- The most common variety of thyme is the Thymus vulgaris, a flowering herb that is a member of the lamiaceae family.
- There are approximately 300 thyme varieties.
- Over the years, thyme has been used for embalming, to battle the plague, to ward off poison, and as a symbol of bravery in war.
- Thyme is a versatile ingredient and may be used to make savory or sweet dishes.
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Thyme and lemon thyme are similar herbs that can be used in a wide range of recipes, both savory and sweet. Although they both contribute a minty, earthy flavor to food, lemon thyme also adds a subtle lemony taste and aroma. You can use the two interchangeably in the kitchen, but use conservative amounts of lemon thyme to avoid overpowering the dish.
What is your favorite use for thyme? Please let us know in the comments below.