Marjoram is a popular herb that is used frequently in many cuisines around the world. It has a sweet, woody taste with hints of balsam. When cooked, marjoram develops a more rounded, warmer flavor. It is versatile and pairs well with many foods like meat, vegetables, eggs, and cheese. While marjoram has a distinctive taste, there are a few spices that can be used as substitutions if you don’t have any marjoram on hand or want to experiment with different flavors.
– Oregano is the closest match to marjoram in terms of taste and can be used in equal amounts. It provides a similar sweet, woodsy, and mildly minty flavor.
– Thyme is another good option, though it has more minty qualities than marjoram. Use half the amount of thyme to match the intensity of marjoram.
– Savory is in the same herb family as marjoram and makes a decent flavor substitute when used sparingly. It is more pungent and bitter tasting than marjoram.
– Basil has an anise-clove flavor that approximates marjoram in certain dishes. Use 20% less basil than the marjoram amount called for.
Botany and Origins
Marjoram is the common name for a few closely related plants in the mint family Lamiaceae, known scientifically as Origanum majorana. It is a tender perennial that grows as a small bushy herb. The oval leaves are about 1-2 inches long and have a soft, downy texture. Tiny white or pink flowers bloom on marjoram in summer. All parts of the plant are aromatic.
Marjoram is native to the Mediterranean region and has been grown for culinary use for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks called marjoram “joy of the mountain” and wove the plants into crowns and garlands. There are references to marjoram seasoning in the works of the Roman poet Virgil and medieval writings. Marjoram was used for both its flavor and as a medicinal herb historically.
Taste and Uses
The taste of fresh marjoram is sweet, with pine and citrus notes. When dried, the flavor intensifies and takes on more woodsy, warm spice nuances, with subtle minty qualities. The intensity of marjoram’s flavor can vary depending on the chemical makeup of the plant and growing conditions.
Marjoram pairs deliciously with many foods. Its sweetness complements eggs, cheese, meat, and vegetables. It is a popular ingredient in Italian, Greek, Spanish, North African, and French cuisine. Just a small amount can add depth of flavor to dishes like stews, salad dressings, pizza, pasta sauces, bread, and more. Marjoram also works well in herbal teas and is used to flavor liqueurs.
Here are some ways marjoram is commonly utilized in cooking:
– Added fresh or dried to tomato sauces, soups, and stews
– Rubbed on meat before roasting, grilling, or sautéing
– Mixed into stuffings and forcemeats
– Sprinkled over vegetables before roasting
– Whisked into vinaigrettes and salad dressings
– Baked into breads, rolls, and pizza dough
– Steeped into oils and vinegar infusions
– Added to herb crusts and coatings for fish and meat
– Mixed into herb butter
– Infused into beverages like tea
Best Spice Substitutes for Marjoram
If you need a substitute for marjoram, there are several spices that can approximate its flavor profile closely enough. Here are the best options:
Of all the herbs and spices compared to marjoram, oregano is the closest in terms of flavor. Like marjoram, oregano has a slightly sweet, woodsy taste with minty notes. The two herbs even belong to the same botanical genus, Origanum. Oregano and marjoram plants look very similar as well.
The main difference between the taste of oregano and marjoram is that oregano has more potency and pungency. This can be adjusted for when substituting by using equal amounts of oregano for marjoram in recipes.
Both dried and fresh oregano will work. Since the dried form condenses the flavor, you may want to use a bit less dried oregano than you would fresh. Italian and Greek oregano varieties are closest to marjoram’s milder flavor.
Thyme makes a great marjoram substitute. It is another Mediterranean herb with very similar notes of woodsy pine and lemon. The biggest difference is that thyme has a stronger, more dominant mint taste.
To account for thyme’s extra mintiness, use about half the amount of thyme in place of marjoram in a recipe. Start with just a small amount of thyme and adjust to taste. The reduction in quantity should give you a closer match to marjoram’s more subtle, earthy flavor.
Both fresh and dried thyme can be substituted. Lemon thyme and English thyme varieties are closest to marjoram’s citrusy tones.
There are two main varieties of savory – winter savory and summer savory. Of the two, winter savory is the closest match to marjoram. Like marjoram, it has a peppery, slightly bitter taste with pine and mint notes. Winter savory is just more pungent and strong than marjoram.
Use winter savory sparingly in place of marjoram – start with about 1/4 of the amount of marjoram called for and adjust from there. The small quantity will help balance savory’s bold flavor. Dried winter savory has the best flavor match.
You may be surprised to learn that basil makes a pretty good substitute for marjoram in some instances. While basil tastes distinctly like licorice and clove, it contains a sweet anise flavor similar to marjoram. Basil also has a slight minty-pine taste that aligns with marjoram.
Use about 20% less basil when substituting for marjoram. So if a recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of marjoram, use no more than 1 1/2 teaspoons of basil. The decreased amount helps account for basil’s stronger punch of flavor and aroma. This substitution works best in dishes where basil’s licorice notes won’t clash, like with meat, tomato sauces, and eggs. Dried basil can be used, but fresh basil is ideal.
Other Possible Substitutes
In a pinch, several other dried herbs can work:
Tarragon has an anise-like flavor similar to marjoram. Use very sparingly, as tarragon can easily overpower.
Dill weed has citrus notes that partially mimic marjoram’s lemon-pine taste. Use about 1/3 the amount of dill compared to marjoram.
Marjoram substitutes chart
|Thyme||1:2 (use half as much)|
|Savory||1:4 (use quarter as much)|
|Basil||1:1.2 (use 20% less)|
|Tarragon||1:10 (use very small amount)|
|Dill||1:3 (use one third as much)|
Flavor Differences Between Marjoram and Substitutes
While the substitute spices above are the best approximations for marjoram’s flavor, there are some subtle ways their tastes differ:
– More pungent and bold
– Slightly more bitterness
– Less sweetness than marjoram
– Stronger minty flavor
– Less citrus and pine notes
– More floral aroma
– Very peppery and bitter tasting
– Higher potency requires much less to be used
– Missing the sweetness of marjoram
– Strong licorice and clove flavor
– Sweeter and less earthy than marjoram
– More pronounced aroma
– Very anise-forward taste
– None of the woodsy pine quality of marjoram
– Can become overpowering very quickly
– Prominent citrus flavors unlike marjoram’s lemon-pine
– Stronger bitterness
– Much more grassy than marjoram
So while not perfect matches, these spices can mimic marjoram well enough in a pinch. Start with small amounts and adjust the quantities as needed. The proportions may vary depending on the dish. Taste as you cook and add more substitute herb or spice gradually until you achieve the right marjoram-like flavor.
Cooking Tips When Substituting for Marjoram
Here are some tips to keep in mind when using marjoram substitutes:
– Add the substitute early in cooking so the flavors can develop fully.
– Use less of stronger herbs like savory and tarragon to prevent overpowering the dish.
– Combine herbs like using both thyme and basil to better approximate marjoram’s flavor.
– Add other herbs and spices to round out the flavors. Garlic, onion, black pepper and lemon zest all complement marjoram well.
– Use fresh herb leaves rather than ground dried herbs when possible for the closest match to fresh marjoram.
– Consider the dish you are seasoning. Some substitutes like basil work better in certain cuisines and recipes.
– Experiment with the proportions of substitute herbs and spices until you achieve the right marjoram-esque flavor.
– Store any leftover fresh herb substitutes by wrapping in damp paper towels and refrigerating in loose plastic bags. Freeze extras to prolong freshness.
With the right herb or spice and some taste adjustments, you can still achieve delicious flavors even without marjoram. Follow the substitution guidelines and adjust amounts as needed depending on the dish.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is oregano the same thing as marjoram?
Oregano and marjoram are close cousins in the mint family and have similar flavors, but they are distinct herbs. Marjoram is mildly sweeter and more delicate than oregano. Oregano has a more robust, pungent taste and scent. They can be used interchangeably in recipes, though the flavor won’t be exactly the same.
What is a good ratio for substituting dried herbs for fresh marjoram?
A general guideline when substituting dried herbs for fresh marjoram is to use 1/3 of the amount called for. So if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh marjoram, use 1 teaspoon of dried. The concentrated flavor of dried herbs means less is needed.
Is marjoram a good substitute for oregano?
Yes, marjoram can be used in place of oregano in most recipes, though the flavors won’t be identical. Marjoram is sweeter and less bitter than oregano, so use the same quantity called for. Taste the dish as you cook and add more marjoram if needed to match the robustness of oregano.
What dishes use marjoram the most?
Some popular dishes that traditionally contain marjoram are Greek meatballs, Italian pizza and pasta sauces, French stews like bouillabaisse, Spanish bean dishes, German sausages, and Middle Eastern lamb recipes. Marjoram also frequently seasons vegetables, eggs, salad dressings, and cheese in many cuisines.
Should you use marjoram or oregano for pizza?
Either herb can complement pizza well. Oregano is more commonly used, providing a bold, zesty flavor. Marjoram is a little sweeter and more subtle on pizza. Use one or a combination, adjusting amounts to suit your tastes. Sprinkle it on pizza sauce, baked into the crust, or as a finishing touch after baking.
Marjoram has a distinct sweet pine and citrus flavor that can be difficult to perfectly replicate with another herb or spice. However, there are some good stand-ins available, with oregano, thyme and savory being the closest matches. While the taste won’t be exactly the same, combining a small amount of one of these substitutes with complementary seasonings can provide a similar woodsy, minty flavor. Experiment with dried vs. fresh and the quantity needed to achieve the right marjoram profile for the dish you are preparing. With a little tweaking, you can still enjoy delicious marjoram-like flavors using one of these handy substitute herbs or spices.