Marjoram is a spice that plays nice. So much so that it appears frequently in herb blends with many other fragrant leaves, often fading into the “supporting actress” role as its more obstreperous cousin, oregano, draws all the attention. I myself wasn’t too familiar with its own personal style until recently; marjoram was something I just added because it was on hand.
Sweet marjoram—the only true marjoram, by the way—is more than just oregano’s understudy. Its addition is what makes specific salad dressings sing, why some certain sausages burst with smooth savory flavor, and what makes blends like herbs de Provence, za’atar, and Italian seasoning harmonize so well.
Marjoram in Botany and History
Taking a step back: what is real sweet marjoram, formerly known as Majorana hortensis and now redubbed Origanum majorana? That in and of itself is contentious, since it tells the story of an herb that used to have its own identity and was swallowed up under the oregano genus. In this now broader grouping, it is the only one that is true marjoram—everything else on this 40-species family tree is actually oregano, despite names (and misnomers) like wild marjoram and pot marjoram.
However it’s categorized, what we can all agree on is that it’s a perennial plant in the mint family with soft gray-green oval-esque leaves that grow in small clusters poetically thought to resemble adorable little knots. This also lends it to being called knotted marjoram.
It’s native to the Mediterranean, and in use there for so long it’s considered a symbol of happiness to the Greeks. It’s said to have been grown by Aphrodite herself—one of many who have cultivated it for thousands of years. Marjoram has also historically been found in parts of western Asia—namely India—and northern Africa, and prized in all of the cultures it appears in. This isn’t just for its flavor. It’s reported to be good for digestion, painful menstruation, infections, and has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial benefits.
What Does Marjoram Taste Like?
Marjoram tastes like a milder, smoother version of oregano. That is to say it’s earthy, woodsy, and warm, undercut with a hint of sharpness and bitterness. Its delicate floral, citrus, and fresh notes, including those of balsam pine, are more pronounced, giving it a balanced profile. It is still strongly aromatic, particularly when weighed against other herbs, but just not as much so as its cousin oregano.
Marjoram Vs. Oregano
With all of these identity crises, what is the difference, then, between sweet marjoram and brash oregano? As mentioned, they are very closely related. There are several types of oregano that also go by variations of marjoram, but only the sweet or knotted type counts as the latter.
Oregano, on the other hand, is bigger and bolder in flavor and aroma, much more pungent and assertive. Its appearance, although bearing a clear resemblance to milder marjoram, is also a stronger presence, as its distinct greenery takes on tones of deep olive as opposed to marjoram’s fuzzy leaves and grayish greens.
Varieties of Marjoram
As mentioned, there is only one true variety of marjoram: Majorana hortensis, a.k.a. Origanum majorana. Anything that is not a sweet or knotted marjoram is an oregano, and that includes potent, peppery Mexican marjoram, which is also confusingly called Mexican sage or Mexican oregano.
Fresh Vs. Dried Marjoram
As with all herbs, dried versions are always more potent per measure, while the fresh is more flavor-forward and lively. Dried marjoram is excellent in blends, such as poultry seasoning or herbes de Provence, as well as on its own when added to stews and sauces.
Fresh sweet marjoram needs to be added toward the end of the cooking process, which means it’s better in applications that don’t require it to be mixed in too early. For example, dried marjoram is better for, say, stuffing or meatballs, while fresh can be lovely added to finish a stew, sauce, or fresh salad.
Where to Buy Marjoram
Dried sweet marjoram is very easy to find in the spice aisle of nearly every major grocery store. It’s typically packaged in a plastic or glass jar and filed away with the rest of the green herbs.
Fresh marjoram may be a bit trickier, though; it’s a little less common. Look for it in the refrigerated produce section, near the bunched or clamshell-packaged sprigs of parsley, thyme, cilantro, rosemary, and—you guessed it!—oregano.
You can also sometimes find marjoram plants in the spring and summer months at greenhouses. It’s an easy herb to grow and, as a perennial, will return the following season if you are lucky.
Oregano just cannot stop trying to steal marjoram’s spotlight! But that’s what makes it a perfect substitute. You’ll need to use less for any swaps—only 3/4 teaspoon for every full teaspoon of marjoram.
You can use thyme on a 1:1 ratio, though, if you’re tired of hearing about oregano. It will change the flavor a bit, but it is technically in the same family and has the same savory, slightly sweet, woodsy, flowery, and minty qualities.
Another good swap is summer savory, and specifically the summer version since that’s a bit sweeter and therefore less bitter than the winter version. This herb has more similarities to sage, but it does offer the combination of sweet and peppery flavor that marjoram does and performs well in ground and roasted meat recipes when you use it ground or dried.
Recipes Made With Marjoram
Marjoram adds nuance to many dishes, with a delicate strength that can carry a lot of ingredients. Here are some of the best ways to put it to use.
- Beef Goulash with Dumplings
- Sheet Pan Chicken with Asparagus and Potatoes
- Potato Leek Soup
- Polish Hunter’s Stew
- Orange Marinated Chicken