Thyme and lemon thyme are two varieties of the thyme herb, which belong to the mint family. Because they are related, they look alike and share some tastes and aromas. Thyme and lemon thyme also have some key differences that will impact how you can use them. To see how lemon thyme and thyme compare to each other, check out this edition of the SPICEography Showdown.
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How does thyme differ from lemon thyme?
Thyme and lemon thyme have different botanical classifications. Thyme is also called common thyme or English thyme, and its botanical name is Thymus vulgaris. Lemon thyme’s botanical name is Thymus x citriodorus and it is a separate species within the thyme family and not a hybrid.
The big differences between thyme and lemon thyme have to do with how they taste and smell. Thyme has the resinous, minty smell with a hint of earthiness that is associated with the whole thyme family but has no other notes to go with it. Lemon thyme has the distinctive thyme smell and scent combined with a distinctive lemony citrus smell.
Thyme and lemon thyme can sometimes have differing appearances. Thyme has uniform, deep green leaves and narrow stems. There are several kinds of lemon thyme and some of them are easy to identify visually while others are not. Lemon thyme will sometimes have tiny deep green leaves and narrow stems, which is what you see on most members of the thyme family. Other kinds of lemon thyme have variegated leaves with pale yellow edges or leaves with purple undersides.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Thyme is versatile and will be a good alternative in most dishes that require lemon thyme. Thyme’s flavor profile has subtle lemony elements that make it a passable lemon thyme substitute without any additional ingredients; however, it is possible to boost the lemon flavor by adding a little lemon zest.
Because lemon thyme has all of the same notes as thyme, it can work as a substitute, but it may not be an ideal one for every recipe. The lemon part of the flavor and scent is not overwhelming but will be noticeable and may not always suit dishes that require regular common thyme.
When should you use thyme, and when should you use lemon thyme?
If any recipe calls for thyme and doesn’t name a specific variety, the writer probably means (common or English) thyme. Thyme is the all-purpose herb used extensively in cooking from France and the Mediterranean region and which has found its way across the Atlantic to the New World where it shows up in many West Indian dishes. Thyme is one of French cuisine’s fines herbes; use it in your bouquet garni and herb butters. It is one of several herbs that you will find in Italian tomato-based pasta sauces. It also plays a role in some recipes for Haitian riz et pois and Jamaican jerk seasoning.
Use lemon thyme in any dish where the lemon flavor might be a benefit alongside the minty thyme notes. You can use it in the stuffing for roasted poultry including chicken and turkey, as well as in the seasoning for mild-flavored fish. It is a great addition to salads as well as cooked vegetables, and you can use it in savory baked goods.