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What Is Oregano?
Also known as wild marjoram and Origanum vulgare (meaning “joy of the mountain” in Greek), oregano is a fragrant culinary and medicinal herb that has been used for thousands of years. Belonging to the mint family, or Lamiaceae, oregano is known for its earthy flavor that makes it a great addition to a wide variety of dishes, from light salads to hefty Italian sauces.
Thanks to its subtly sweet, herbaceous flavor, oregano has become one of the most popular cooking herbs in the world, featured prominently in Italian, Turkish, Mexican, and Greek cuisine. Unlike most herbs, oregano is mostly commonly sold and used in its dry form, as the aromas of fresh oregano are highly pungent and can easily overpower a dish.
Varieties of Oregano
- Mediterranean Oregano (aka. Greek oregano, common oregano, or Origanum vulgare hirtum) - The most common form of the herb—it has a milder taste and bold aroma.
- Mexican Oregano (aka. Lippia graveolens) - A flavorful variety of oregano that is popular in Mexican cooking thanks to its strong peppery notes that pair well with chilies.
- Italian Oregano - A combination between oregano and marjoram, this hybrid herb has a sweeter flavor that’s ideal for seasoning pasta and pizza sauces.
- Cretan Oregano (aka Turkish Oregano, pot marjoram, and Origanum onites) - A species of oregano grown throughout Greece, Turkey, and Italy with a similar flavor profile to common oregano.
What Does Oregano Taste Like?
A subtle balance between sweet and spicy, the flavor of oregano is bold and earthy with a slight bitterness that's reminiscent of the aromatic organic compound camphor. This unique flavor is due to the rich variety of essential oils within oregano, including pinene, limonene, thymol, and carvacrol.
Oregano is commonly confused with marjoram, another member of the mint family that has a similar appearance and aroma. However, marjoram has a sweet, lemony taste in contrast to oregano’s more savory flavor.
What's the Difference Between Oregano and Basil?
While fresh basil has a flavor that is herbal and minty, with hints of clove and pepper, it has a more pronounced sweetness compared with oregano's bitter, earthy flavor. The flavors of these complementary herbs are similar enough that, especially when used as dried herbs, they can be substituted for one another in richer dishes, like tomato-based sauces and stews. In lighter dishes, like dressings and marinades, the distinction between the two will be more apparent as the flavors of the peppery oregano and sweet basil are more pronounced.
What’s the Difference in Cooking With Fresh vs. Dried Oregano?
While most culinary herbs tend to lose much of their flavor when dried, oregano is one of the rare exceptions to the rule. The flavor of fresh oregano and dried oregano is very similar, so the choice between the two typically comes down to appearance, aroma, and price. Given its pungent flavor, dried oregano is used more frequently during the cooking process, as the flavors are easier to control. Fresh oregano is generally used as a garnish, or added at the end of cooking.
Dried oregano, which is sold in brown, powdery flakes, is the more affordable and ubiquitous option, available in most grocery stores and markets. Fresh oregano has an appealing leafy green appearance that can add color and aroma to dishes, but isn’t as widely available.
How to Dry Oregano
There are three possible methods for drying oregano:
- Hang drying - Group the fresh oregano springs into bundles, tied together with a rubber band around the end. Use the rubber band to hang the oregano on a nail or herb drying rack in a dry, sunny room. Let the herbs hang until completely dry, 1-2 weeks. Strip the dried leaves from the stem into a large bowl, discard the stems, and crush the leaves by hand until they’ve reached a fine, powder-like consistency. Store in an airtight container for 6-12 months.
- Flat drying - This method is best for drying smaller quantities of the herb. While fresh, remove the leaves from the stem and lay them out on a paper towel-covered tray in direct sunlight until dry. Crush the leaves by hand and store.
- Microwave drying - This shortcut method is best utilized in herb emergencies that require a quick turn around. Remove the leaves from the stalk and lay them out on a paper towel-covered plate. Microwave the oregano on low until the leaves have completely dried, cool, and crush into powder form. Note that this method will deplete the flavor of the oregano the most out of any of the drying methods.
Culinary Uses of Oregano
Some of the most common uses of oregano include tomato-centric recipes, like pizza and pasta sauce, as well as olive oil-based dishes. Oregano is commonly combined with olive oil to create flavorful oregano oil, Italian vinaigrettes, and marinades for lamb, chicken, and beef dishes. Other ingredients that pair well with oregano include garlic, basil, onion, and thyme.
Fresh oregano leaves are an excellent garnish to add in moderation at the end of cooking, particularly to hearty vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, and cauliflower. Whether cooking with dried or fresh oregano, it’s best to crush or chop the herbs by hand before adding them to a dish in order to release the flavorful essential oils contained within.
Health Benefits of Oregano
In addition to being packed with vitamins A, C, and K, and minerals like iron, calcium, and manganese, oregano is also rich in dietary fiber. This leafy herb is also packed with essential oils like carvacrol and thymol, which have antibacterial, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory powers that help to fight harmful free radicals and prevent illness.
11 Recipe Ideas Using Oregano
- Italian Vinaigrette - A simple salad dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, dried oregano, minced garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
- Basic Pizza Sauce - A universal sauce for homemade pizza can made using tomato paste, tomato sauce, dried oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper.
- Green Pozole - A traditional Mexican soup made with chicken broth, chicken breast, salsa verde, hominy, green chiles, garlic, cumin, and Mexican oregano.
- Baked Chicken with Oregano and Lemon - Chicken breast marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, oregano, and salt. Baked until golden and served with grilled vegetables and an herby Greek yogurt sauce.
- Oregano Pesto - An alternative take on traditional pesto made with fresh oregano, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper.
- Oaxacan Mole with Mexican Oregano - Yellow mole made with guajillo chiles, Mexican cinnamon, chicken stock, saffron, tomatillos, masa harina, and dry Mexican oregano.
- Mussels with Lemon and Oregano - Mussels cooked in a mixture of white wine, olive oil, minced garlic, chopped onions, lemon juice, dried oregano, and salt. Topped with fresh oregano and served with crusty bread.
- Tomato Pasta with Oregano - A fresh tomato sauce consisting of plum tomatoes, olive oil, minced garlic, chopped fresh oregano, crushed red pepper, and seasonings. Served over cooked pasta with parmesan cheese.
- Oregano Lamb Chops - Lamb chops marinated in olive oil, dried oregano, lemon juice, and minced garlic. Grilled and served with a chopped Greek salad.
- Chimichurri Sauce - An herbaceous combination of fresh parsley, fresh garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and dried Mexican oregano.
- Eggplant and garlic confit with oregano - Chef Thomas Keller uses oil to confit Chinese eggplant and garlic, a technique that will impart a creamy, succulent texture to both.