Culinary Arts

What's the Difference Between Oregano and Marjoram?

Written by MasterClass

Jun 21, 2019 • 4 min read

Oregano and marjoram are both fragrant, fuzzy green herbs used frequently in Mediterranean dishes. But how are the two actually different?

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What's the Difference Between Oregano and Marjoram?

Oregano and Marjoram are both species of the genus Origanum, whose Latin name comes from the Greek origanon (brightness or joy of the mountains). Origanum plants are native to the Mediterranean region, North Africa, and western Asia and have been cultivated for thousands of years, including by both the ancient Romans and Greeks—in Greek mythology, both marjoram and oregano were grown by the goddess Aphrodite.

Some of the more common plants called “oregano” include:

  1. Origanum vulgare, aka wild marjoram and common oregano, has large leaves, and a strong oregano flavor. This is the most common species of oregano in Europe.
  2. Origanum onites, aka pot marjoram, has smaller leaves and is less sweet than origanum vulgare, and pairs well with garlic and onion.
  3. Origanum heracleoticum, aka winter marjoram, is popular in Italy.

To avoid confusion with oregano species sometimes called marjoram, true marjoram is often referred to as knotted or sweet marjoram.

How Do Oregano and Marjoram Differ in Taste and Appearance?

Oregano plants have a concentration of the aromatic compound carvacrol, which gives it its savory flavor. Marjoram, by contrast, is sweeter, as it isn’t high in carvacrol. Instead, it gets its flavor from a variety of aromatic compounds including sabinene (fresh, woody), terpinene (citrus), and linalool (floral).

In an herb garden, it can be hard to distinguish between the two culinary herbs, since both marjoram and oregano have oval-shaped, fuzzy green leaves and purple flowers. Marjoram leaves tend to cluster at the tips of the branches, whereas oregano leaves tend to dot the entire stalk of the plant.

Cooking With 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 the aromatic herb 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.

Cooking With Marjoram

Marjoram can be wrapped in cheesecloth with other fresh herbs to create an aromatic sachet for braises and stews, or sprinkled fresh onto vegetable side dishes. Dried marjoram is a popular addition to salad dressings, meat dishes, and preserved meats such as German sausage. Used in both fresh and dried form, marjoram is subtler than its relative oregano and well suited to delicate vegetables, tomato-based dishes such as tomato sauce and pizza, and poultry seasoning.

Marjoram is an important component of spice blends including:

  • French herbes de provence: marjoram, lavender, basil, rosemary, thyme, and fennel.
  • Middle Eastern za’atar: marjoram, oregano, thyme, sesame, and sumac.

Can Oregano and Marjoram Be Used Interchangeably?

Fresh oregano is a good substitute for fresh marjoram, but since it has a more pungent, less sweet flavor, use about half the amount of oregano. Keep in mind that dried oregano tends to taste even stronger than the fresh stuff. Since there is so much variation in flavor of oregano itself, the best substitutions will depend on exactly what kind of flavor you’re going for.

Oregano varieties can differ in flavor based on species and growing region—Greek oregano, for example, is typically high in pungent carvacrol, while Spanish oregano tastes more like thyme. Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) comes from the verbena family. Since it has a higher essential oil content than Origanum varieties, it seems more pungent.

12 Recipe Ideas Featuring Oregano

  1. Chef Thomas Keller’s Confit Eggplant and Garlic
  2. Wolfgang Puck suggests trying oregano instead of tarragon in his Seafood Gazpacho.
  3. Italian vinaigrette with red wine vinegar, dried oregano, minced garlic, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper.
  4. Basic pizza sauce with tomato paste, tomato sauce, dried oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and black pepper.
  5. Green Pozole with chicken broth, chicken breast, salsa verde, hominy, green chiles, garlic, cumin, and Mexican oregano.
  6. Baked chicken breast with oregano, lemon, and herby Greek yogurt sauce.
  7. Try a variation on tradition basil pesto with oregano.
  8. Oaxacan yellow mole with dried Mexican oregano, guajillo chiles, Mexican cinnamon, chicken stock, saffron, tomatillos, masa harina.
  9. Mussels cooked in white wine and lemon juice, topped with fresh oregano.
  10. Grilled lamb chops marinated in olive oil, dried oregano, lemon juice, and garlic.
  11. Chimichurri Sauce with fresh oregano, cilantro, and flat-leaf parsley.
  12. Chef Thomas Keller suggests trying earthy flavors like oregano in a pickling brine for seasonal vegetables.

7 Recipe Ideas Featuring Marjoram

  1. Homemade marjoram and garlic bratwurst with bread and sauerkraut.
  2. Classic holiday stuffing with sage, marjoram, and thyme.
  3. Italian tomato sauce with marjoram.
  4. Cacio e pepe with black pepper, parmesan cheese, and marjoram.
  5. Roasted butternut squash with goat cheese and marjoram dressing.
  6. Roasted red peppers marinated with sliced garlic cloves and fresh marjoram.
  7. Use marjoram in za’atar-spiced grilled chicken breast with lemon juice.

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