Oregano and marjoram -- although you wouldn't know it at first, the two herbs have a deeply entwined history. In fact, the name oregano is often used to refer to marjoram and vice versa. Confused? Don't be. We'll give you the scoop on these closely related herbs that bring a sweet and savory kick to meats and vegetables and why they're known as ancient symbols of love and happiness.
A Brief History
First, let's set the record straight. Oregano and marjoram are pretty much the same thing. (News to me!) They're both of one of over 200 subspecies belonging to the genus Origanum, a member of the mint family. But the oregano that flavors pizza and souvlaki is Greek oregano, aka wild marjoram, aka Origanum vulgare. It's the stuff generally found dried and for sale in the grocery store spice isle. Marjoram aka O. majorana, however, is a sweeter version of oregano, and just as integral to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Oregano hails from the Mediterranean and the hot terrain of the Middle East. In the mountains of Greece, where it grows in wild abundance, it is oros ganos, which roughly translates as "joy of the mountain." In antiquity it was associated with Aphrodite, who legend says created the herb and imparted it with her sweetness. In a nod to the goddess of love, it was customary for brides and grooms in ancient Greece to marry with a crown of oregano. It was even planted on graves to soothe the dead. In Rome it was used in salves, oils and cosmetics. Pliny, the Roman historian, prescribed it as a remedy against snakebites and digestive problems.
While sweet marjoram flourished in the temperate climate of North America and in the gardens of European settlers, the spicier Greek oregano was fairly unknown in America until World War II. It is said that returning GIs, having developed a taste for it while serving in Southern Europe, helped to introduce oregano into American kitchens. The popularization of Italian American cuisine, where oregano is an integral ingredient, surely helped too!
- Oregano is the wild twin of marjoram.
- Oregano is technically a flavor, not an herb. Marjoram is the name of the herb.
- The herbs get their distinctive flavor from the chemical compound carvacrol.
- Apparently grazing goats on wild oregano will impart tastier meat.
- Sweet marjoram was one of the herbs used in the embalming process by ancient Egyptians.
- Despite the name Mexican oregano, the pungent Lippia graveolens is not actual oregano. Instead it is more closely related to lemon verbena and used as an ingredient in chili powder.
Oregano and marjoram are perennial herbs that flourish in warm sunny weather, revealing their Mediterranean origins. Just like its cousin mint, oregano/marjoram is fairly invasive. Savvy gardeners will plant them in a pot or well drained container with moist soil to keep it from spreading all over the garden.
Marjoram does better in cooler weather than oregano, but both can be grown in northern US states in temperatures no lower than 50 F. Cold weather, however, will cause the herb to lose its distinctive flavor.
Summer and autumn is prime oregano time! Look for it in your local farmers' market. Our season-less modern food system means that herbs are shipped from California, Mexico and Latin America to grocery stores all year round, but we promise, nothing beats the freshest herbs, and that means grown near you.
As plants go, oregano and marjoram rank low on environmental impact compared to other monocropped plants. In fact, oregano is known for its hardiness in dry conditions and low water footprint -- that is if you're not taking into account the virtual water used to ship produce long distances to consumers. (When possible, try to source your herbs from farmers' markets to cut down on water footprint associated with food miles.) But oregano and marjoram are great plants to use for ground cover, which helps with erosion and retention of moisture. Oregano also wins extra green points because its essential oil can be used as a natural insecticide!
Oregano and marjoram grow as a shrubby herb with green rosette leaves that develop on branches that fan out from the base and reach up to two feet tall. When buying oregano, look for vibrant colored leaves that are not curled and withered. If you are buying dried in a store, make sure you purchase Italian or Greek oregano as Mexican oregano is a different animal altogether.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Oregano and marjoram isn't exactly vitamin rich; there have been boasts of being higher in antioxidants than spinach, although the claim doesn't quite stack up. However it's praised in alternative medicine circles -- oregano specifically -- for its antiseptic and antimicrobial properties. While the Journal of Applied Microbilogy recently published a study showing the promise oregano essential oil in killing norovirus, others in the scientific community have critiqued that while oregano is antiviral, it's not as effective as bleach is in killing the virus. Further, there has been debate over its use to treat candida. But oregano essential oil will continue to appeal to those looking for nontoxic and natural ways of treating wounds and infections. In fact, oregano is being used as a successful alternative to antibiotics by organic chicken and pork producers.
What to Do with It
Oregano and marjoram is a peppy and savory addition to meat, fish, eggs, cheese, vegetables and bread. Basically tomatoes plus oregano equals a match made in heaven. You can even add it chopped fresh to salads or season homemade salad dressings. While fresh herbs are best, dried oregano is one of the few that keep well and retain flavor. Za'atar, a Middle Eastern condiment of oregano, dried sumac, spices and sesame seeds, is the best thing in the world. A dusting of it and a drizzle of olive oil on piping hot flatbed will make you weak in the knees. Marjoram, the mild mannered version of oregano, is great with grilled fish and chicken. Marjoram is also one of the many dried herbs that goes into herbes de Provence, a French staple.
Keep dried oregano and marjoram a cool, dark, airtight container. Fresh herbs will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator once they are harvested. You can store in a plastic container wrapped in a paper towel.
Dried oregano packs a more flavorful punch. You can add it while cooking at any time. However if you are cooking with fresh oregano, the flavor tends to dissipate with heat. Add it to your dish near the end of cooking.
Stretching your food dollars through preservation
The beauty of this recipe is twofold. One, it answers the age-old dilemma of what to do with garlic scapes when you get a bunch in your summer CSA share. (Why is this a dilemma? Mince them and sprinkle on everything!) Two, it marries three ingredients that are super fresh in early summer -- fava beans, scapes and marjoram.
I'm sort of obsessed with fava beans when they are in season, but they can be a pain to shell. Something to keep in mind when you're buying them from your local farmers' market -- look for plump pods where you can feel the bean in the pod. Thinner pods are a sign of smaller beans or beans that haven't fully developed before harvest. You'll need about two pounds to yield about two cups. Also, and this might be controversial, I leave the skin on the beans. Just cook until tender and they'll be totally fine.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
Fresh Fava Beans with Garlic Scapes and Marjoram
2 cups of fresh fava beans
2 tbs of minced garlic scapes
2 tbs of roughly chopped fresh marjoram leaves
1 tbs of butter
1 lemon wedge
Salt for seasoning
1. Shell fava beans by running pairing knife gently along the inside seam and splitting open. Set aside in a bowl.
2. Bring a pot of water and fava beans to a boil. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes or until fava beans start to float. Drain and set aside.
3. In a wide skillet, heat one tablespoon of olive oil and sauté garlic scapes until golden. Toss in fava beans, butter, and marjoram, giving a stir -- long enough to coat the beans and melt the butter. Remove from heat and season with lemon wedge and sea salt.
This post was originally published in July 2014.