Culinary Arts

What Is Savory (Herb)? Learn About Winter and Summer Savory With 4 Recipe Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Jun 6, 2019 • 6 min read

For 2,000 years, people have used savory as a culinary herb to flavor beans, season meat, and add a thyme-like taste to their meals. Savory’s robust, peppery taste even inspired a second meaning—savory also refers to flavorful food, as in “a savory sauce.” Savory is also known as the “herb of love”: Ancient Romans believed this aromatic herb was a natural aphrodisiac and used it to make love potions. So powerful was its reputation that European monasteries forbid the growth of savory for fear that the monks would fall under its spell.


What Is Savory?

A member of the mint family, savory is a small, green plant that is used to add flavor to food. This aromatic herb has two main varietals used in cooking: winter savory and summer savory. Both are native to the sunny slopes of the Mediterranean region.

What Does Savory Taste Like and Smell Like?

The pleasing aromas of savory have made it a culinary staple throughout Europe and an ingredient of essential oils. Summer savory has a hot, peppery flavor, while winter savory is earthier and more subdued. Both have notes of marjoram, thyme, and mint. It was a popular herb until the spice route from Asia introduced black pepper to Europe.

What Is the Difference Between Winter Savory and Summer Savory?

While summer savory is more widely used than winter savory, both have flavors of thyme, marjoram, and mint that can be a great addition to a variety of dishes, both warm and cold.

  • Summer savory. Satureja hortensis is sweet and spicy smelling herb, lighter in flavor than winter savory. Summer savory is is a delicate plant with small, light green leaves. It is one of the most popular herbs in Acadia, a region along the Atlantic coast of Canada, used in traditional dishes and holiday cooking.
  • Winter savory. The aromas of winter savory, satureja montana, are reminiscent of the winter season, with hints of sage and pine. It is a hardy plant, growing in rocky outcrops of the Mediterranean (thus its name, “montana,” meaning “mountain.”)

What Are the Health Benefits of Savory?

Savory has been used for medicinal qualities as long as it has for culinary purposes.

  • Savory is thought to be a natural antiseptic.
  • It is sometimes used as a remedy for a sore throat and bacterial infections.
  • It provides relief from bites and stings.
  • It’s also used to treat lung ailments, like asthma and respiratory tract problems.
  • Savory can also help with digestive issues like gas in the stomach, a reason it is often incorporated into bean dishes.

4 Ways to Use Savory in Cooking

Depending on the dish, dried or fresh leaves of savory can be used to complement a course. Their plants are on the smaller side, which makes them easy to grow in an herb garden, as long as they are in full sun.

Here are four ways to use savory in cooking:

  1. Season meats with a winter savory rub. Winter savory is an herb that does well with long preparation and cooking times, making it a great accompaniment for meat. It is even used to help flavor and preserve salami. Rub winter savory into meats like pork, beef, and chicken to release those deep, peppery-pine flavors before roasting or grilling.
  2. Herbes de Provence. This famous French blend of dried herbs consists of plants native to Provence in the southeast region of France. Savory is a main herb alongside marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. Add it prior to or during cooking. Herbes de Provence are often sprinkled over meats and fishes before grilling or roasting, or added to oils to create a cooking base full of flavor. This is an easy recipe to make and great to keep on your shelf, ready to use in a pinch with any dish that calls for extra flavoring.
  3. Bottled in vinegar. Add a cup of summer savory leaves to a quart of white-wine vinegar. The acidity of the liquid helps extract the pungent oils from the savory, creating a flavorful condiment with a long shelf life that can spice up dishes, including salads, sauces, soups, and roasted vegetables.
  4. Salt substitute. The Romans used savory as a salt substitute, and it still is a perfect use for the spicy herb.

4 Substitutes for Savory

Savory is a staple in Italian and French kitchens. It’s used less often on its own in North America, which can make finding it on grocery store shelves a little tricky. If you need to replicate the savory flavor, try these more common herbs as alternatives:

  1. Thyme is the herb most closely related in taste to savory, with a slightly minty and pungent flavor. Savory can be swapped out for fresh or dried thyme in the same suggested serving.
  2. Sage has hints of pine, like savory. It’s another Mediterranean leafy herb that can get close to the taste. Fresh sage is better to use when trying to achieve a taste close to savory.
  3. Marjoram is a good third-choice alternative with flavors of thyme and oregano. Marjoram is a more fragile herb though and its flavor doesn’t stand up to long heat exposure. Add it midway through cooking.
  4. Herb mixtures can really get close to seasoning and flavoring foods like savory can. Try mixing two parts thyme to one part sage and a pinch of mint. Mix and match herbs until you achieve that unique, pungent flavor.

4 Recipe Ideas Using Savory

From casseroles to meats, bean dishes to stews, savory can add a twist of rich, smokey flavor to so many different meals. While summer savory is often paired with lighter foods like beans, and winter savory is cooked with heavier fare, like meats and stuffings, both can be deepen and enrich flavors of many dishes. Here are four recipes that use savory.

  1. Stuffing. The hearty flavor of winter savory leaves pairs well with warm comfort foods like stuffing. Heat half a stick of butter in a pan. Generously add savory, thyme, and rosemary to flavor the melting butter. Add onions, celery, fennel, and mushrooms and cook until tender. Stir in 3 cups of chicken broth and simmer. In a bowl, combine breadcrumbs with two eggs and toss together. Add the vegetable-broth to the breadcrumbs. Combine well, put in a pan and cook for one hour.
  2. Simple savory lentils. Use winter or summer savory in this classic and easy lentil dish. Saute onion and garlic in butter. In another pot, boil vegetable or chicken broth. Add uncooked lentils, savory, salt, pepper, carrots, tomatoes, and the garlic-onion combination. Simmer until lentils are soft, about 45 minutes.
  3. Green beans with savory. Boil trimmed green beans for five minutes. Heat butter in a pan. As it melts down, add half a teaspoon of savory, the green beans, and a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Cook until beans are tender.
  4. Savory meatballs. In a bowl, combine a pound of ground beef and a pound of pork sausage. Sprinkle in Italian-style breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and savory and mash together until ingredients are well mixed. Roll into one-inch meatballs and place on a pan. Bake for 20 minutes then put in a pot of Italian sauce (a tomato-basil or marinara) and let the meatballs finish cooking through in the simmering sauce. Serve over pasta.

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