Though marjoram is a popular spice in cuisines around the globe, it isn't necessarily one everyone keeps in their spice rack. The good news is, there's a number of marjoram substitutes you can use instead.
But before we break down the best marjoram substitutes, let's take a closer look at the spice itself.
What is marjoram?
Marjoram is a perennial herb in the mint family that is closely related to oregano. It is sometimes referred to as sweet marjoram, pot marjoram, or knotted marjoram. The herb can be found in both fresh and dry form in most supermarkets, grocery stores, and gourmet food retailers.
The herb is native to the Mediterranean, where the ancient Greeks and Romans heralded it as a symbol of happiness. And for a good reason too. The herb is known to be packed with antioxidants that make it a popular herb in alternative medicine. The fresh or dried leaves can be brewed as tea or extracted as marjoram essential oil and used for medicinal purposes.
Here are a few of the many health benefits of the marjoram herb:
- Anti-inflammatory properties that may alleviate chronic inflammation
- Antimicrobial properties that help treat fungal infections and bacterial growth
- A "nerve tonic" that relieves dizziness, headaches, migraines, and nerve pain
- A "heart tonic" to improve circulation and support heart health
- A "water pill" for improved digestion and relief from stomach cramps
- A natural antidepressant that may help to improve mood
- Essential oils added to cosmetics, soaps, and other beauty products
Marjoram can be used fresh or dried. Like most other herbs, dried marjoram is more potent than fresh marjoram. When substituting dried marjoram for fresh marjoram, use one teaspoon of dried herbs for every tablespoon of fresh called for in the recipe.
What does fresh marjoram taste like?
The marjoram plant is covered with small, green leaves that have a distinctly earthy, woodsy flavor with hints of sweet pine and citrus. Though it's remarkably similar to oregano, marjoram lacks oregano's sharp, spicy notes. It's slightly sweeter and creates a more complex, more delicate balance of flavors within the dish.
What is marjoram used for?
Though marjoram is often overshadowed by oregano in the kitchen, it offers a range of culinary uses:
- Seasoning meat dishes, including German sausage, roast lamb, and Thanksgiving turkey
- Adding complex flavors to pizza and pasta sauces
- Seasoning casseroles and roasted vegetable dishes
- Bringing a unique flavor to salads and salad dressings
- Reaping the herb's numerous health benefits through medicinal herbal tea
- Garnishing and seasoning soups and stews
While today marjoram is widely used around the globe, it's best known for being a staple in Greek, Italian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern recipes.
The Best Marjoram Substitutes
The secret to successful substitution is to use an herb with a similar flavor and aroma. Close relatives in the mint family make the best marjoram alternatives in most recipes. While no other herb can perfectly replicate the unique flavor of marjoram, most culinary experts consider oregano to be one of the best marjoram substitutes out there.
Before substituting for another herb, be sure to double-check if the recipe calls for fresh marjoram leaves or their dried counterpart. Dried herbs are often more potent than fresh herbs, so you'll need to adjust accordingly depending on what you have on hand.
In general, it's best to start with a small amount of the substitute herb to avoid throwing off the delicate balance of flavors in the dish. It's far easier to add more as you go than it is to have to adjust all the other ingredients because you've added too much.
Fresh oregano is undoubtedly the best substitute for marjoram in marjoram recipes, but dried oregano can work as well. The two herbs are closely related, so they offer a similar appearance, flavor profile, and aroma. In fact, they're often used together in recipes and spice blends to create a complex balance of sweetness and spice.
When using oregano as a marjoram substitute, you'll want to half the amount called for in the recipe. Though oregano has the same pine and citrus notes, it packs a far stronger punch that can easily overpower a dish. If your dish needs more flavor, you can always add another pinch or two of the aromatic herb later in the cooking process.
Oregano can be used as a substitute for marjoram in almost any dish. It's great for roasting vegetables, seasoning meat dishes, and deepening homemade soups and stews flavors.
As a fellow member of the mint family, basil can be used as a last-resort marjoram substitute. While it won't add the same sweet pine and citrus notes as fresh or dried marjoram, it'll bring a unique flavor profile of its own. It makes a particularly good substitute in Italian recipes like tomato sauce, soup, and salad. Start with a 1-to-1 ratio of fresh basil to fresh marjoram and adjust as needed.
Thyme is another popular herb in the Mediterranean region. Like oregano and marjoram, it's a member of the mint family. Compared to the two other herbs, its slightly sharp flavor has stronger notes of mint and lemon. It's commonly used to season meats, roasts, and casseroles. You can add the same amount of thyme as the recipe calls for marjoram when using thyme as a substitute for marjoram.
Alternatively, you can use lemon thyme— a citrusy variety of thyme— as an alternative to marjoram. It'll offer a more intense citrus flavor, so it works particularly well for poultry, fish, and other seafood. Its small sprigs make a great garnish too on top of soups, stews, or vegetable dishes.
Sage is a popular herb in savory dishes, especially around the holidays. It's commonly used to season poultry, sausage, root vegetables, and Thanksgiving stuffing. In addition to being added to dishes directly in dried or fresh form, it's also infused into butter or olive oil. The herb's sweet flavor and aroma have notes of pine, eucalyptus, and citrus that are similar to marjoram and oregano.
In a pinch, you can also substitute marjoram with summer savory. While it's not particularly common in the United States, the herb can be used similarly to other members of the mint family of herbs. It offers a milder version of the same spicy, peppery flavor notes found in thyme, marjoram, and oregano. Summer savory makes a particularly good substitute when seasoning sausages, grilled meat, or poultry. Use a 1-to-1 ratio of summer savory to marjoram.
Herbes de Provence
Herbes de Provence is a popular spice mix in French cooking and other European cuisines. It makes a good substitute for marjoram because it contains marjoram, along with other aromatic herbs. The fragrant spice blend traditionally includes a mixture of thyme, basil, rosemary, summer savory, oregano, tarragon, bay leaf, and lavender. It works particularly well for seasoning roasted or grilled vegetables, chicken, or fish.
Za'atar is one of the popular spice blends in Middle Eastern cooking. Though its contents vary from region to region, most contain a combination of oregano, thyme, marjoram, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. Some contain additional ingredients like salt, dill, and dried orange zest. It's earthy, tangy, sweet, and savory all in one. Because of its Middle Eastern roots, it's a great marjoram substitute for making salads, seasoning flatbreads, and roasting delicate vegetables.
Poultry seasoning is another option that can work as a marjoram substitute, as most blends contain sage, thyme, and marjoram. If you are planning on using this option as the substitute, be sure to read what is in the mix to determine if it is truly the best substitute.