Oregano has a long history in Southern Europe and shows up in numerous savory dishes from that part of the world. In America, it is the flavor that many associate with pizza and pasta sauces. Oregano is a familiar herb that is easy to find. Some forms of this herb happen to be particularly potent, so consider the following dos and don’ts of using it to get the best results.
Do understand the difference between fresh and dried oregano. Fresh oregano is unlike most other herbs in that the fresh is considerably more pungent when compared to the dried version. In most cases, the drying process actually intensifies the flavor of an herb as it concentrates the essential oils that are responsible for the flavor.
With oregano, it is the fresh herb that has a stronger flavor. This means that how much of each you use in your dish depends on whether you are using the fresh version or the dried version. If you were to use the dried as a 1:1 substitute for the fresh, you might wind up with a bitter, over-flavored dish. This is especially likely in a dish that is supposed to have a mild flavor.
Do understand the difference between Mexican and Mediterranean oregano, which is sometimes called Italian oregano. These are two different plants in that Mexican oregano is a relative of lemon verbena, while Mediterranean oregano is a member of the mint family like basil and thyme. In most parts of the US, only the Mediterranean version is referred to simply as oregano. Mexican oregano is used Latin American cooking and grows throughout South and Central America; Mediterranean oregano originated in the Mediterranean region and is used heavily in Italian and Greek cooking.
Both oregano types have a similar savory pungency, but Mexican oregano has more citrus notes compared to the woodsy Mediterranean version. The Mexican version pairs better with cumin and chili peppers, while the Mediterranean version goes best with tomato sauces and grilled meat.
Do prepare oregano properly. While dried oregano should be crumbled, fresh oregano will have to be stripped from the stems before being chopped and added to the dish. Leave the leaves attached if you plan to use fresh oregano as a part of a bouquet garni. When using dried oregano, it is a good idea to crush it in the palms of your hand to help release the essential oils.
Do use oregano in moderation. Oregano’s intensity can result in it overwhelming the other flavors in a dish, which means that you will need to use an especially light touch when adding it to your food.
Do pair it with the right herbs and spices. Oregano goes well with other members of the mint family including thyme, basil, and marjoram. It also works well with other savory ingredients like garlic and olive oil.
Do store fresh oregano correctly. While oregano is a hardy herb, you will still need to use the right storage methods if you want it to last as long as possible. Your options include the bouquet method where you stand the sprigs upright in a container of water. You can also chop oregano leaves and freeze them in ice cube trays or dry them.
Don’t bother adding oregano at the end of cooking to keep its flavor from fading away, as you might with other herbs. It is pungent enough to last over a long cooking time, which means that you can add it at a relatively early point in the cooking process.