What Is Oregano?
Oregano is a foundational herb for Mediterranean cooking and the difference between good and bland pizza. But on its own, what is it? We break it down simply, leaf by pungent leaf.
Just as with olfactory memories, there are some herbs and spices whose associations are so strong as to be inseparable in your mind. For me, oregano is one of them. Growing up in the suburban pizza parlor paradise that is Long Island, New York, I can’t even think of this pungent seasoning without feeling the ghost of a hot, greasy, folded plain slice in my hand, the hard plastic booth veneered with printed wood grain pattern beneath me. I know I’m not alone, as oregano is the herb that gives pizza its signature flavor. Any pizza without it misses noticeable oomph.
Funny, then, to think that this is a relatively new association—it wasn’t actually used much in the United States until the end of World War II, when soldiers home from duty popularized the concept of pizza after experiencing it overseas. Through this single vehicle, oregano sales increased 5200 percent between 1948 and 1956, and the pair became American canon. But before that, it’s enjoyed a long history as a favorite herb. Let’s pick it apart.
Oregano is part of the mint family, similar to marjoram and thyme.
The herb is native to Greece and a cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine.
There's no true equal substitute, but marjoram, parsley, or summer savory can be used in a pinch.
Mexican oregano is actually a totally different species.
What Is Oregano?
You may think, with this strong connection to one of Italy’s most famous inventions, that oregano is native to that country. However, its native “roots” are found in Greece and this perennial plant is a cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine.
Its Latin name is Origanum vulgare, which comes from the Greek word for mountain, “oros,” and “ganos” for joy. This makes its literal translation a common mountain of happiness. And with its now worldwide use—and benefits that include vitamin K and anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties—there’s little doubt that it’s lived up to that name.
What Does Oregano Taste Like?
Oregano is not a subtle herb. It’s considered among the most pungent and savory, punchy with its assertive aromas, notes of camphor and pepper, slight bitterness, and astringency. You get flavors of mint and hay, both of which are wrapped under the umbrella of its “green” flavor. However, it all gets balanced out with warm earthiness and pronounced strength.
Oregano Vs. Marjoram
Visual similarities between oregano and marjoram are thanks to their relationship as members of the mint family, as well as a tandem, paired usage in classic Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. It also doesn’t help that oregano is sometimes called wild marjoram! But it does help that marjoram’s leaves are slightly hairy and a tad dustier-looking than oregano’s olive tones, and that their flavors are immediately apparent as quite different. Marjoram’s slightly floral, earthy, and woodsy scent is easily overpowered by the pungency and assertiveness of oregano, which takes a backseat to few other herbs.
Read More:What Is Marjoram?
Oregano Vs. Italian Seasoning
It’s easy to sniff a bottle of generic Italian seasoning blend and think it’s all just plain oregano. As we just mentioned, it’s an herb that stands out! However, there’s more to Italian seasoning…literally! Italian seasoning is a blend that typically includes basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram at its core, and may even add in crushed red pepper flakes, granulated garlic and/or onion, sage, or fennel. The ratios of each ingredient vary from maker to maker.
Varieties of Oregano
There are 39 species of herbs that are considered oregano, and that’s without including the one true marjoram, which is closely related but whose flavor traits are different. Greek oregano, Oreganum heraclites, is the most common and also known as Oreganum vulgare. Just as widely used is the Italian kind, Oreganum onites. Spanish Oreganum bibnes has less depth to it, but is still excellent.
However, Mexican oregano is actually a totally different herb entirely! So much so that’s it’s also called Mexican marjoram or Mexican sage, despite its lack of relation to either one of those, either. It’s not from the same botanical family as what we know as oregano, and it’s much more potent with strong peppery notes that have lent it use in chili powders for an even bigger impact.
Fresh Vs. Dried Vs. Oregano Oil
Like all herbs, fresh oregano has a brighter, stronger immediate flavor with grassier notes to it than the dried version, which is more potent in cooking.
Oregano oil, the natural oil found in its leaves is what is extracted for oregano essential oil. This can be used (sparingly and carefully!) for cooking, but is also great for cleaning as it’s naturally antimicrobial, second only to thyme for its antibacterial properties.
Where to Buy Oregano
Thanks to pizza (and we can thank pizza for a lot, to be honest!), oregano is very easy to get a hold of. You can find it packed in clamshells or loose bunches among the fresh herbs and leafy greens of any mainstream supermarket, as well as at nearly any farmers market. You can even buy fresh oregano as part of an herb container garden! Dried oregano is just as accessible. No spice aisle at any market is complete without it. In both, look for deep green hues to indicate freshness, and avoid gray or limp cuttings.
Oregano’s assertiveness is a double-edged sword—it’s hard to call any other herb an equal substitute. However, you can capitalize on its complementary ones. Basil is usually a dependable foundation. For instance, mix fresh or dried basil with marjoram, parsley, summer savory, or all of them. Some folks use marjoram and thyme, which will change the flavor. However, thyme can be a good swap for certain cooking techniques because, similar to oregano, it can be added early on in cooking.
My favorite way to make sure I don’t lose any of its pungent goodness and intriguing bite is to just use Italian seasoning, which you can get in even more places than the herb by itself! For instance, I once found myself saved in a pinch at my local drugstore, where it sat on the same shelf as equally staple (to me!) seasonings: salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
Read More:Use This From-Scratch Italian Seasoning Recipe and You'll Never Buy it In a Bottle Again
How to Prep and Cook With Oregano
To use fresh oregano, strip the leaves from the stem, chop them up, and add them to your recipe as prescribed.
Unlike other herbs, it is actually recommended to add your oregano early on in the cooking process. Its flavor is pronounced enough that it will hold even during extended heat exposure, gradually infusing into your dish. You can also use it as a topper before baking.
As tempted as you might be to use plenty—don’t. Too much can make your dish bitter.
Oregano is a fantastic team player, which makes it a common ingredient in many recipes, particularly for pasta sauces, pesto, seafood, chicken, soups, and—obviously—pizza. It does best with other strong aromatics such as garlic, onion, thyme, parsley, basil, tomatoes, lemon, and olive oil.
Subbing dried for fresh? You’ll need 1 teaspoon of dried to 1 tablespoon of fresh since it’s more concentrated.
To get dried oregano clippings to come to flavor faster, crush the leaves between your fingers so they releases oils and therefore, flavor.