The most common mistake people make when buying or growing fresh oregano to season things like pizza or red sauce is getting Italian oregano. Most get it home, or into the kitchen, then find out that it doesn’t taste quite right. In fact, Italian oregano tastes a lot more like mint. But, it says it’s Italian oregano, so what went wrong?
The problem is that the taste we look for when we choose to use oregano is actually found in the Greek variety, not the Italian. In truth, Italian oregano isn’t even Italian. It’s native to North America, and is more closely related to peppermint and marjoram. Which is why it tastes like an extremely mild version of them. Which way the taste leans depends on the climate it’s grown in. In more humid climates it will taste more like marjoram, and if grown in arid climates it will taste more like peppermint.
True Mediterranean cooking is done with Greek oregano, which has a very different, and far sharper flavor. Also in the mint family, it has a robust, peppery flavor which goes well with vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms, which is why it’s used as a key spice for many Mediterranean recipes, which call for these ingredients. In America we most frequently use oregano in pizza. It’s the second most important ingredient in the sauce, right behind tomatoes.
Over the centuries, Greek oregano has also been used medicinally for calming indigestion and treating coughs. When combined with other herbs, such as horehound and lemon grass it can be used as a tea to treat dry, scratchy throats and settle upset stomaches. There are a lot of health benefits in eating Greek oregano as well, since, like most herbs, it’s packed with antioxidants.
So, what can you do with the minty Italian oregano? Believe it or not, it combines well with other ‘desert’ mints, such as spearmint and chocolate mint to flavor teas. It also pairs well with lemon grass, grape leafs, and raspberry leaves. For desserts Italian oregano can been used as a background flavor in heavy cream sauces that call for the zest of citruses such as lemon or lime.
If your Italian oregano tastes more like marjoram it can be used to substitute for it in recipes. Italian oregano has a far milder flavor, however, so one should double the amount called for when using it as a substitute.
Most prepackaged oregano that you find in stores, whether fresh or dried, is going to be Greek oregano, even if it’s labeled “Italian”. But, if you’re planning on growing your own make sure the package says “Greek”. Even then, sometimes it will be mislabeled. One sure fire way to know it’s Greek is to get cuttings instead of seeds. Italian oregano reproduces via seeds, but not cuttings. Greek oregano reproduces both ways, but the seeds tend to be weak and are hard to propagate. Cuttings for Greek oregano tend to grow more easily.
So, next time you open up the oregano and find it tastes like mint, don’t despair. You’re not crazy. Just pop it into the tea kettle instead.
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