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Rosemary Vs Thyme Differences and Replacements

Some recipes call for these two herbs seemingly interchangeably. So I wanted to have a quick cheats guide to rosemary and thyme and how to use and replace each one.

Gardener’s may say rosemary and thyme have similar growing needs, being drought tolerant and sun loving. Requiring adequate drainage but little else from the soil. Chefs will have an understanding of the depth of flavor from rosemary and the pine notes from both. The subtle citrus from lemon thyme.

It is important to understand each plant before we can gauge how best to replace them in dishes.

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Rosemary Vs Thyme

  • Rosemary is an evergreen, perennial and a woody herb. Thyme is an evergreen perennial and a softwood herb.
  • Rosemary will grow to be a substantial shrub in your garden and care should be taken around positioning. At maturity rosemary can grow to be four feet (1.2m) in height and spread. Thyme will more likely grow to a maximum of 15 inches (38cm) with some varieties being more suited to hanging baskets or as ground cover at around 2 inches in height, but the spread is more important here.
  • Both are from the Mediterranean and as such are drought tolerant and will thrive in conditions with irregular watering intervals. They will also both thrive in full sunlight.
  • Neither thyme or rosemary require a mulch and will struggle with too much added nitrogen or other feed. Meaning that they are ideal to be planted together.
  • Flavor is key to their difference and understanding how we may get the most from each ingredient. Rosemary has an astringent and pungent pine flavor with lemony notes. It has strength of flavor to be paired with alliums like garlic and still thrive. Thyme is a little more complicated as there are many varieties that we commonly use. The general thyme flavor is herbal with an intense pine like grass note. Lemon thyme really does have a lively citrus flavor, but in no way as sharp and astringent as rosemary.
  • Rosemary has pine like needles for leaves and can be harvested all year round although there is a natural dormant period from Winter until early Spring. At this point using dried rosemary is preferable simply for allowing the plant to thrive. Thyme has much smaller leaves and can be harvested in Summer by taking pinches from the tips of growing stems, this will encourage new growth. In Winter a natural dormancy occurs and younger plants will need overwintering. You can harvest stems at the mid-Autumn / Fall time to allow for drying.
  • Both rosemary and thyme pair well with beef, lamb, venison, roasted vegetables and many Mediterranean dishes like pizza, pasta and gnocchi. You will find stews, casseroles and Bouillabaisse all require fresh or dried rosemary and thyme.

How To Replace Rosemary In Cooking

  • Thyme is a great substitute for rosemary in recipes but as we have said rosemary is a stronger flavor and therefore using 1 tablespoon of thyme for 2 teaspoons of rosemary in a recipe is ideal. This is a ratio of 3:2 so if a recipe needed 2g of rosemary you would use 3g of thyme. Use this ratio whether replacing dried for dried or fresh for fresh. When using fresh sprigs you can afford to be a lot more casual and just go for it.
  • Savory has a flavor that is very reminiscent of thyme crossed with oregano and with that much needed minty light peppery flavor too. Use savory and thyme in a like for like match. 1 teaspoon of dried thyme = 1 teaspoon of dried savory.
  • Italian Seasoning is made up of rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil. This means that if a recipe calls for rosemary and thyme you can pretty much see a direct relationship here. It will have the strength of rosemary coming through but in such a quantity as to not bully the other flavors. Therefore at a push Italian Seasoning can be used to replace thyme, but not if the recipe wants lemon thyme.
  • Oregano is a great substitute for thyme as they are both from the mint family and both grow native in the Mediterranean region. Earthy and peppery in flavor and light enough to offer a compliment to other tastes in a dish. Use in a 1:1 ratio whether fresh replacing fresh or dried replacing dried.
  • Marjoram is similar to oregano and a suitable replacement for thyme. Go for 1:1 ratio here as well.
  • Herbes De Provence also contain thyme in their herb mix. Making it a great substitute for a recipe that calls for dried thyme. Be smart here and look at the other ingredients as if the recipe calls for rosemary as well, you can kill two birds with one stone. So to speak. Replace both of them quantity for quantity if using dried.
  • Fresh thyme can be replaced with dried thyme. The ratio here is usually 1 teaspoon of dried for 2 teaspoons of fresh. IF you are looking to use a sprig of fresh thyme that works to about 2/3 of a teaspoon of fresh leaves. Go sensibly here though, as you will need to adapt the recipe somewhat. If you need to stuff with a few sprigs of fresh thyme it is not a direct swap and you may need to make up a herb rub with some rock salt to get the flavor to truly penetrate the meat.

How To Replace Thyme In Cooking

  • Rosemary is the natural replacement for thyme using our golden ratio above where we mention how much stronger rosemary is than thyme. This means if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of thyme, use 2 teaspoons of rosemary. Link it to fresh or dried.
  • At a pinch you can use Italian Seasoning if you have that in your spice rack, it contains rosemary and so will have something of the flavor, but mixed in with other herbs too. If a recipe calls for thyme and oregano as well as rosemary and you are using Italian seasoning as the replacement, just bear in mind that it will have those herbs in the mix. So if the recipe needs 1 teaspoon each of rosemary, thyme and oregano, replace it with 3 teaspoons of Italian seasoning.
  • Similarly you can try Herbes De Provence as a replacement for rosemary in a recipe. But take into account other herbs needed. This is why people ask if you can replace rosemary with lavender, as in Northern America the variety of herbes de Provence they prefer has lavender added. That and the fact that both rosemary and lavender have pine needle like leaves.
  • If a recipe calls for a fresh rosemary sprig that is the rough equivalent of 1 teaspoon of fresh leaves, this would be replaced with 1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary. It may not be as simple as that in your recipe and you may need to look at how you add the sprig, it is not always easy to stuff holes in a joint of lamb with dried rosemary, but you can make a herb rub instead.
  • Dried savory can be a good substitute for rosemary, but your quantities will need to change. Savory has an earthy, pepper flavor with hints of mint, thyme and oregano in there too. It is far less of a bully than rosemary and therefore you need to have a ratio of 1:2 which means if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried rosemary you replace it with 2 teaspoons of dried savory.
  • If a recipe calls for lemon thyme you can use oregano and either lemon verbena leaves or lemon balm. Lemon verbena leaves need to be cooked as you would do bay leaves, basically pulled out before serving as they are crunchy and unpleasant to eat. Lemon balm can be dried and used with the oregano 50:50 to replace lemon thyme.
rosemary and thyme replacements

What Next & Further Reading

For more on growing rosemary and thyme as well as cooking in different ways with them have a look at some of our other articles. Many thanks, Alex

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