There are really two oreganos
It’s been several months since I began this project of writing about Herbs & Spices, so I think it is high time I cover one of the most popular herbs in our kitchens. While oregano has been part of the European cuisine for centuries it is a relative new comer to the American scene. World War I saw a modest spike in American interest in oregano, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that returning GIs began demanding this tasty herb for their tables. They had become accustomed to it while serving in the European Theatre.
Sometimes called wild marjoram, oregano belongs to the mint family and is related to both marjoram and thyme. Because it is more pungent and aromatic, it has to be used with more care than marjoram. Fresh Mediterranean oregano is sometimes available in supermarkets and the dried variety is almost always available. There is a Mexican variety that is much stronger and typically used in highly spiced dishes, especially in Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes.
The Mediterranean variety is widely used in Greek and Italian cuisines. It is the leaves that are used in cooking, and the dried herb is often more flavorful than the fresh. (Remember when substituting dried herbs for fresh herbs 1/3rd dried equals 1 fresh. Whether it is a teaspoon, tablespoon, cup or poundage the substituting equation is always the same.) Together with basil, oregano contributes much to the distinctive character of many Italian dishes. Oregano is used in tomato sauces, fried vegetables and grilled meat. Oregano combines nicely with pickled olives, capers and lovage leaves. Unlike most Italian herbs, oregano works with hot and spicy food, which is popular in southern Italy. The dish most associated with oregano is pizza, which has been eaten in Southern Italy for centuries.
Oregano is an indispensable ingredient for Greek cuisine. Oregano adds flavor to a Greek salad and is usually used separately or added to the lemon-olive oil sauce that accompanies almost every fish or meat barbecue and some casseroles.
Then there is Mexican oregano, which is closely related to lemon verbena. Mexican oregano has a very similar flavor to oregano, but is usually stronger. These two oreganos have become highly regionalized. (Mexican oregano isn’t a true oregano, but work with me on this.) If you were born and raised east of the Mississippi then Mediterranean (Greek or Italian) oregano is what you would know as oregano. On the other hand, if you were born west of the Mississippi, especially Southwest, then Mexican oregano is what you know as oregano. My recommendation is, if you are doing a dish that is Mexican or Tex-Mex and it calls for oregano, use Mexican oregano. If you are doing any other recipe that calls for oregano, then use Mediterranean oregano.
A thin substitute is sweet basil or mint.