A member of the Origanum plant genus and close cousin to fragrant marjoram, oregano (origanum vulgare) is often listed as one of the most utilized culinary herbs. Easily identified by its oval leaves, purple-ish flowers and aromatic scent, the perennial plant is native to the Mediterranean. Oregano grows happily in the region’s often rocky terrain, and the name itself comes from the Greek for “Joy of the Mountains.”
Oregano, which has a distinctive aroma and slightly bitter taste due to a high concentration of phenolic acids, can vary greatly in potency – some strains are uniquely delicate or mild while others are quite strong. Greek oregano tends to be the most pungent; the chemical make up of Spanish, Italian, and Turkish varieties results in milder herbs, often with more floral or woodsy notes.
Though Mexican oregano is a notably potent variety, the strain (despite its name) isn’t part of the oregano family. Mexican oregano actually belongs to the Lippa genus, a member of the verbena family (the same scented plant which brings aromatherapy fans the popular lemon-verbena scent). And while we’re on the topic of misnamed herbs, Cuban oregano is really a member of the mint family (that’s plectrauthus amboinicus for you Latin buffs), though you shouldn’t concern yourself with the name too much – the tender leaves are particularly flavorful and are considered a delicacy in some tropical and Asian regions.
Common Uses for Oregano
Oregano is most characteristic of Italian, Mexican, and Greek cuisine, though it does make frequent appearances in other world cookery. The herb pairs very well with basil, and together the two act as the foundation of many Italian dishes: pasta sauces, pizza, grilled vegetable and meat dishes, etc. While there isn’t a great deal of history documenting oregano’s global use throughout the last several millennia, the herb began to noticeably infiltrate American spice racks with the onset of the pizza boom in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.
While the herb-wise Italians may be credited with popularizing oregano in the United States, other Mediterranean regional cuisines had already been utilizing the plant for centuries as well. The most notable example is probably Greek cuisine, which often pairs the aromatic leaves with lemon juice, olive oil and little else. This combination is then used in nearly every meat or fish dish associated with Greek fare, from grilled meats to roasted lamb and then some; oregano fries, a popular Greek-food transplant commonly found in stateside Mediterranean restaurants, as well as the ever popular Greek salad both rely on the herb to define themselves as Greek-food staples…without the oregano, they’d just be another side order.
Oregano also appears in many other cuisines including Mexican, Cuban and Spanish, all which use the leaves to add dimension to simple bean dishes and soups, or to some meat and/or vegetable-based entrées. Americanized Tex-Mex fare also uses oregano (chili con carne just isn’t the same without a dash), and the herb is added frequently to chili powder blends used in cooking.
The phenolic compounds which give oregano its unique pungency have an added bonus – they are proof of the plant’s flavanoid content. Flavanoids are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemical compounds which have proven medicinal and anti-inflammatory properties, including the prevention of heart disease and chronic illnesses like cancer.
Oregano also has antibacterial properties, and has been used medicinally in some cultures to treat colds, whooping cough, throat infections and the flu. As a result, oregano tea is not an uncommon home remedy during cold and flu season.
It is thought that oregano essential oil is far more potent than the fresh or dried leaves, offering powerful antiseptic traits in addition to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial characteristics.
Use and Storage:
Oregano can be used fresh or dried, though the leaves are actually more potent when dried. Fresh oregano leaves can be frozen for later use; they can also be dried in open air and then stored in an airtight jar. Oregano can be found in most supermarket spice aisles, and is easy to grow in home gardens or larger herb boxes. It pairs particularly well with basil, garlic, thyme, parsley, lemon, and/or extra virgin olive oil.
Oregano can be overpowering if not used carefully – always start with a little, adding more to taste as needed.
- In tomato sauces or dishes.
- In most garlic and/or olive oil-based sauces.
- In bean dishes.
- In marinades and dressings.
- In savory baked goods like meat pies or quiche.
- In dry rubs for grilled meats or fish.
Useful in cooking, dressings, marinades, or for bread dipping, oregano-infused oil is ridiculously easy to make and store. You’ll need:
1 large bunch of oregano
½ – ¾ cup of canola, vegetable, or olive oil
clean jar with a well-fitting lid
Remove all leaves, discarding the stems. Chop leaves roughly and combine with oil in jar. Shake well. Leave jar to sit for 30 minutes, then refrigerate. Let oil sit for desired amount of time – you can let herbs sit for a few hours or as long as a week (add more herbs if the flavor is still weak after several days). Strain the oil, discarding leaves. Store herb-infused oil in the refrigerator.
Greek Oregano Dressing:
Quick and easy to make, this simple dressing adds an extra kick to salads and is particularly nice drizzled over sliced tomato and feta cheese or on roasted vegetables.
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped (or
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
Combine lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Stir with a fork or spoon. Add in olive oil, garlic powder, and oregano. Stir again. Store dressing in an airtight container in the refrigerator.