English Thyme Vs. French Thyme: SPICEography Showdown

Thyme varieties number into the dozens with English and French thyme being two of the best-known ones. Both the English and French varieties of Thymus vulgaris have their origins in the Mediterranean and possess similar flavor profiles; however, they also have some notable differences. We will look at some of what makes them distinctive herbs in this SPICEography Showdown. 

How does English thyme differ from French thyme? 

English thyme is arguably the most popular variety of the herb. You will often see it referred to as common thyme and as you might have guessed from the name, it is the version most often found in England. From England, it has made its way to former British colonies like Jamaica where it has become a staple herb in their food cultures.

Aside from French recipes, most of the recipes that specify thyme without also naming a particular variety typically require English thyme. Its flavor offers some of the sweet and camphoraceous qualities of both clove and mint, which is accompanied by the hints of an herbaceous and grassy aroma. It is a pungent variety of thyme though that pungency may vary according to where it is planted.

In comparison, French thyme is usually reserved for French recipes. Provence is French thyme’s region of origin and it is the variety most often used in French cooking. French thyme is also called summer thyme and it offers a flavor that is noticeably subtler than that of English thyme. It has the same mint and clove notes as English thyme but less of them and the sweetness of those notes are at the forefront. 

English and French thymes differ in appearance as well. The leaves of English thyme are larger and rounder than those of the French variety. 

Can you use English thyme as a substitute for French thyme and vice versa? 

English thyme can make a passable substitute for French thyme, but not an ideal one. The difference in intensity means that anyone with a discerning palate may be able to tell when you are using a substitute. If you are making classic French dishes, the difference may stand out more than in other applications.

In that case, use less of it to compensate for the difference in flavor intensity. You can use French thyme in place of English in most of the applications that require that herb. You can increase the quantity slightly to get something closer to English thyme’s pungency. 

When should you use English thyme and when should you use French thyme? 

English thyme and French thyme are two of the most versatile thyme varieties. There are very few situations where their minor differences will have any impact on your dish. Even so, you can reserve English thyme for British meat preparations like roasts and mutton — it is a fundamental part of their flavor profiles. English thyme is also the variety most used for making stocks outside of France. You can also use it as an all-purpose substitute for other kinds of thyme.

French thyme’s use is a little more specific since it is best for French dishes; use it in French seafood preparations and in quiche. It can work as an all-purpose substitute just like English thyme, though it might not be universally valuable.