Mexican oregano, also known as Mexican marjoram or Mexican wild sage, is an herb commonly used in Mexican cuisine. It has a very distinct flavor and aroma, adding a unique taste to dishes like chili, tamales, salsa, guacamole, and more. But what exactly makes Mexican oregano taste the way it does? The answer lies in the blend of spices and herbs used to create this signature seasoning.
The base of Mexican oregano is true oregano, Origanum vulgare. This flowering plant in the mint family provides the characteristic oregano flavor. Oregano grows wild in the mountains of Mexico and has been used for centuries in traditional cuisine. The oregano used in Mexican oregano seasoning is typically dried on the stalk to intensify its taste and aroma before being crushed or ground.
In addition to true oregano, marjoram is commonly added to Mexican oregano seasoning blends. Marjoram is also a member of the mint family and tastes similar to oregano with subtle differences. It has a sweeter, lighter flavor than oregano. The inclusion of marjoram in Mexican oregano helps balance the sometimes bitter taste of true oregano.
Also called Mexican coriander or long coriander, culantro is another herb traditionally used in Mexican oregano blends. Unlike the more common coriander or cilantro, culantro has thick, tough leaves with a stronger flavor. The leaves are cut into a powder to add an intense, citrusy spice flavor to Mexican oregano.
Epazote is an herb in the pigweed family that grows wild in parts of Mexico and Central America. Also known as Mexican tea or wormseed, it has a very bold, resinous flavor with notes of camphor, citrus, and mint. Epazote is often included in small amounts in Mexican oregano to add unique flavor dimension. Too much can make the seasoning mix unpleasantly bitter.
Another aromatic herb sometimes found in Mexican oregano blends is thyme. Thyme provides subtle earthy, minty, and floral notes. Using just a small pinch of dried thyme can help enhance the complexity of flavors.
With its bright, lemony aroma, lemon verbena may also be used sparingly in Mexican oregano seasoning. The herbal citrus tones help lift the other flavors. Too much lemon verbena can make the blend taste perfumey or soapy.
Like marjoram, summer savory is in the mint family and can be used as a substitute for oregano. Its peppery, sage-like flavor stands up well to the bold ingredients in Mexican oregano blends.
Some spice is often added to Mexican oregano in the form of black pepper. Coarsely ground peppercorns provide a hint of heat and fruitiness.
Other Potential Ingredients
Depending on the brand or recipe, other herbs and spices may also be included in smaller amounts in Mexican oregano seasoning, such as:
- Mexican mint marigold (also called Mexican tarragon), which has an anise-like sweetness
- Rosemary, for its piney bite
- Cumin, for earthiness
- Mexican oregano may also include hints of allspice, cloves, cinnamon, or coriander seed
Blending the Herbs and Spices
There is no set rule for exactly which herbs and spices to use and in what proportions when making Mexican oregano seasoning. Recipes vary regionally throughout Mexico and Latin America. However, most blends include a majority of true oregano and marjoram as the base. The other ingredients are added to taste in smaller amounts to create the signature flavor profile.
Getting the balance right requires some trial and error. Culantro, epazote, and stronger herbs like thyme and summer savory should be used judiciously to avoid overwhelming the other flavors. Once combined, the dried herbs and spices that make up Mexican oregano are typically mixed well and stored in an airtight container out of direct light.
When blended skillfully, the herbs and spices in Mexican oregano create a flavor that is stimulating, complex, and very distinct. It is stronger and earthier than Mediterranean oregano. The combination of citrus, mint, and resinous notes gives it a robust taste that powerfully seasons Mexican dishes.
Why Use Mexican Oregano?
Cooks choose Mexican oregano over regular oregano for its bolder, more intense flavor. It has a kind of spicy, peppery kick that stands up well to hearty Mexican staples like beans, chili, stews, grilled meats, and vegetables. Its aroma is also very characteristic, lending authentic regional flavor.
Using Mexican oregano seasoning evokes the tastes, smells, and essence of genuine Mexican cooking. It provides a depth of flavor that you just can’t get from regular oregano grown elsewhere. Lovers of Mexican cuisine should have some Mexican oregano on hand for authentic dishes.
Using Mexican Oregano
To draw out the most flavor, Mexican oregano should be lightly toasted or fried at the start of cooking. Here are some tasty ways to put it to use:
- Add to chili, mole sauces, refried beans, and stews
- Season meats like beef, pork, chicken, and lamb
- Rub on vegetables before grilling
- Mix into rice, beans, pasta, and risotto
- Flavor sautéed or roasted vegetables
- Spice up guacamole, salsa, and dips
- Make a spicy herb marinade for meats
- Blend into adobo seasoning
- Add bold flavor to empanadas and tamales
- Use to make a zesty herb oil for drizzling
Because it has such a strong taste, just a teaspoon or two is usually enough to flavor an entire dish. Start with a small amount, taste, and add more as desired. Use a light hand until you are familiar with its potency.
While you really can’t mimic the exact taste, you can substitute regular oregano, marjoram, or a blend of herbs. Combining marjoram, thyme, basil, and oregano approximates the flavor to some degree. You may also be able to find dried Mexican oregano leaves, which provide a closer match than Mediterranean oregano.
Buying Mexican Oregano
Purchase Mexican oregano from spice shops, Mexican markets, or the spice aisle of well-stocked grocery stores. It is typically sold dried, ground, or crushed into flakes. You can also grow Mexican oregano plants and dry the leaves yourself. Look for bright green color and go for organic, non-irradiated herbs when possible.
Storing Mexican Oregano
To retain the volatile oils that give Mexican oregano its characteristic bold flavors and aroma, store it in an airtight glass jar out of direct sunlight. Keep in a cool, dark place and avoid exposure to heat, air, and moisture. Properly stored, it will retain its potency for up to 1 year. Smell and taste periodically, replacing when the flavor fades.
Mexican Oregano Plant
Mexican oregano comes from the tropical and subtropical plant Lippia graveolens, in the verbena family. It is a perennial shrub that grows 2-3 feet tall in warm climates. The small green leaves are very aromatic when crushed. White flowers bloom in late summer. It can be grown as an ornamental or herb plant outdoors year-round where winters stay above freezing.
Like other herbs, Mexican oregano is low in calories and rich in antioxidant phytochemicals. It provides vitamins A and C, along with minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium. The essential oils contain active compounds like thymol, carvacrol, and limonene that provide medicinal qualities. Its strong scent also stimulates appetite.
For centuries, Mexican oregano has been valued in folk medicine:
- Natural antibacterial and antifungal properties help fight infections
- Antioxidants may reduce cellular damage from oxidative stress
- Essential oils combat strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- Aids digestion and relieves intestinal gas or cramping
- Helps boost the immune system
- Anti-inflammatory effects may ease sore throats when gargled
- Applied topically it may accelerate wound healing
Research is still preliminary but indicates Mexican oregano has a number of promising health benefits when consumed or used medicinally.
When eaten in normal culinary amounts, Mexican oregano is generally recognized as safe and risk-free. However, concentrated essential oils should not be ingested. Pregnant women should not take medicinal doses due to potential uterine stimulation. As with any herb, some individuals may experience allergic reactions. Discontinue use if any irritation develops.
Growing Mexican Oregano
Gardeners in warm climates can grow Mexican oregano plants outdoors easily. It performs best in zones 9-11 but can be grown in pots and brought inside during winter in cooler areas. Mexican oregano needs lots of sun and well-drained soil. Once established, it is drought tolerant. Plant from nursery starters or take cuttings from mature plants in spring. Harvest leaves as needed once the plant is mature. Light pruning encourages bushier growth. Bring potted plants inside before first frost.
Mexican Oregano vs. Mediterranean Oregano
Mexican oregano is often confused with Mediterranean oregano (Origanum vulgare). While they are both strong, zesty seasonings, they have distinct differences:
|From the Lippia graveolens plant
|From the Origanum vulgare plant
|More intense, earthy flavor
|Milder, slightly sweeter and more floral
|Hint of lime and citrus
|No citrus tones
|Grows wild in Mexico
|Grows in the Mediterranean
|Used more in Mexican cuisine
|Used more in European cuisine
|Darker green color
|Grayish green color
They come from different plants and parts of the world, so have distinct but related flavors. Mexican oregano packs more punch!
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Mexican oregano actually contain oregano?
Yes, true oregano (Origanum vulgare) is typically the main ingredient in Mexican oregano seasoning blends. It provides the base oregano flavor.
What’s the difference between Mexican oregano and regular oregano?
Mexican oregano also contains other spices like marjoram, cilantro, and epazote that give it a stronger, more complex flavor with citrus and herbal notes compared to regular Mediterranean oregano.
Can you substitute regular oregano for Mexican oregano?
In a pinch, regular oregano can be substituted but the flavor will be missing the signature earthy, spicy kick of Mexican oregano. For best results, use a blend of marjoram, cilantro, thyme, and oregano to approximate Mexican oregano.
Is Mexican oregano spicy?
It provides a different kind of spicy compared to chili peppers. The blend of potent herbs creates a strong, pungent flavor that offers a spike of spicy intensity. Black peppercorns are also sometimes added which provide a little heat.
What does Mexican oregano pair well with?
Its bold flavor stands up well to hearty meats, thick sauces, beans, stews, vegetables, chilies, rice, and grilled foods. Use it to season tacos, enchiladas, meats, guacamole, salsa, and more Mexican fare.
Can you grow your own Mexican oregano?
Yes! In warm climates, Mexican oregano can be grown outdoors year round. It also grows well indoors or on a patio in pots that can be brought inside for winter. Provide plenty of sun and well-drained soil.
Mexican oregano offers a way to instantly add authentic regional flavor to dishes. It provides an earthy, robust taste that sets it apart from more common Mediterranean oregano. The secret is in the blend of true oregano combined with other herbs like marjoram, epazote, cilantro, and thyme.
To draw out the best flavors, lightly toast the dried herb mix before adding it to chili, stews, beans, meats, salsas, and more popular Mexican fare. Use a light hand until you get accustomed to its bold potency. With its antimicrobial benefits and zesty taste, Mexican oregano is a legendary, quintessential ingredient in Mexican cooking.