By Harold McGee
Thyme got its name from the Greeks, who used it as an aromatic in their burnt sacrifices; it shares its root with the words for “spirit” and “smoke.” There are a lot of thymes: 60–70 species in the shrubby, tiny-leaved, mainly Mediterranean genus Thymus, and as many or more varieties of the common thyme, Thymus vulgaris. There are also many flavors of thyme, including lemon, mint, pineapple, caraway, and nutmeg. A number of thyme species and varieties taste much like oregano because they contain carvacrol. Distinctive thyme species and varieties are rich in the phenolic compound called thymol. Thymol is a kinder, gentler version of carvacrol, penetrating and spicy, but not as aggressively so. It’s this moderate quality that probably endeared thymol thyme to the French, and that makes it a more versatile flavoring than oregano and savory; European cooks have long used it in meat and vegetable dishes of all kinds. Despite its gentler aroma, thymol is as powerful a chemical as carvacrol, which is why thyme oil has long been used as an antimicrobial agent in mouthwashes and skin creams.