Should you use thyme or rosemary for steak? What do these herbs bring to the table, so to speak? Are there other herbs that will suffice if you can’t find either one? We’re here to help you fill in the blanks.
Thyme or Rosemary For Steak
While thyme has a subtle woodsy flavor, rosemary is more intense, with hints of licorice. If you’re adding a fresh herb to a marinade or seasoning rub, rosemary is preferable. Thyme makes a great addition to sauces and compound butters, but you’ll need to use a lot of it if you want to be able to taste the difference.
All About Rosemary
If you’ve ever seen rosemary before, you might have mistaken it for a bunch of pine needles. The long, sharp-looking leaves do bear a certain resemblance to some varieties of pine, but the flavor of this herb is slightly different.
Rosemary comes from a type of evergreen shrub, which explains the resemblance. In fact, this genus can be found on roughly 300 species of shrubs and small trees, most of them native to Asia and the Mediterranean.
The aroma of rosemary is slightly anise-like, which is to say that it smells a bit like black licorice. The flavor is more subtle, though it’s still more intense than that of thyme, as we’ll discuss later.
Rosemary has a floral taste. Some people also think that it has a nut-like flavor, which pairs well with meat. It’s used in a variety of cuisines, from Indian to Middle Eastern to Scandinavian and Irish dishes.
All About Thyme
Another savory herb, thyme has a woodsy flavor that’s similar to rosemary, though you would likely notice a subtle difference if you performed a taste test. Thyme, which belongs to the mint family, is a bit sweeter, and pairs well with many other herbs.
There are numerous Italian and Greek recipes that call for thyme. The flavor is prevalent in Middle Eastern and Southern European cuisine as well. Though it benefits the rich flavor of beef, we think thyme works especially well with seafood.
Thyme vs. Rosemary: The Breakdown
Rosemary has a sharper and more intense flavor than thyme. For this reason, we think it’s a better choice for steak, as it holds its own against the robust sweetness of the beef.
What’s more, fresh rosemary is more user-friendly than thyme. The herb grows in fat clusters, which are easier to separate from the bunch. Thyme leaves are so small, you might have a hard time stripping them from the stems.
As far as pricing is concerned, there shouldn’t be much of a difference, if there is one. Most of the time, these types of herbs are set at the same price point. They might even be packaged together—with or without the addition of sage—as a “poultry bouquet.”
Thyme or Rosemary For Steak?
For the reasons we mentioned above, we think rosemary has a slight edge over thyme when it comes to flavoring steak. However, there’s no need to limit yourself to just one.
You won’t need as much rosemary to impart a bolder taste to your steak, so that’s good. Adding just a small amount to your seasoning rub will lend floral notes and a zesty flavor to the grilled meat.
You’d have to use a lot more thyme in your recipe if you want to be able to taste a difference. So in addition to being milder in flavor and difficult to prepare, it’s less cost-effective.
That said, we do think that thyme goes well with steak when you use it in a sauce. A healthy measure of minced fresh thyme added to a brandy cream sauce, for example, will take a grilled tenderloin steak to the next level.
In short, you should use whichever of these herbs you feel is appropriate. There’s no right or wrong answer. Neither rosemary nor thyme will ruin the steak, so feel free to experiment.
And if you can’t decide which one to use, go ahead and add both to your marinade or spice rub. This will give the meat a more complex flavor, which is exactly what you’re looking for.
Benefits of Using Fresh Herbs for Steak
Did you know that rosemary and thyme both have natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties? Though the cooking process should eradicate any bacteria to begin with, these herbs will make the steak safer to eat—and more delicious to boot.
Which other herbs pair well with steak? Although sage is often bundled with rosemary and thyme, it’s not the best fit for beef. The pungent, citrusy herb works better with poultry and pork.
Here are a few herbs that do enhance the flavor of steak. We’ve also included tips on how to use them. Not every herb should be used in the same stage of the preparation—some are better for marinades, while others work well in sauces or compound butters.
Pesto fans will love the way this peppery anise-flavored herb complements their steak. If you don’t want to bother making a pesto, try sprinkling minced fresh basil over your steak just before serving.
Parsley is often derided as a mere garnish, but it can contribute a fresh kick to any savory dish. As with the basil, add parsley just before serving the steak. You can even combine basil and parsley to create an enticing herb blend.
Whether fresh or dried, oregano is a welcome addition to marinades. It has an earthy flavor with hints of mint, and goes nicely with pork as well as beef.
Notes of licorice, vanilla, and mint are the hallmarks of tarragon, an essential ingredient in bearnaise sauce. The next time you grill a tenderloin or Porterhouse steak, make sure you have fresh tarragon on hand.
Like garlic and scallions, chives come from the allium family. They have a zesty, grassy flavor and can be used to make a simple yet tasty compound butter.
How To Select Fresh Herbs for Steak
Whether you’re shopping for rosemary or thyme, you should select branches with bright green leaves. If the leaves are turning brown or brittle, then the herbs have outlived their best qualities.
The leaves should smell pungent yet refreshing, with no hint of mold. Try tasting one to ensure that its flavor bursts in your mouth. There shouldn’t be any dirt on the branches, either.
Prepping Thyme or Rosemary
The preparation techniques for these two herbs are similar, though rosemary leaves are significantly larger.
To prep thyme, strip the leaves from the stems as best you can. There are kitchen tools available for this purpose, but you can also use your fingers. Chop the leaves roughly before adding them to your spice rub or marinade.
It should be easy to strip the long rosemary leaves from the stems. Once you have, you can slice or mince them before using them in your chosen recipe.
The Bottom Line
We think that thyme and rosemary both have their uses when it comes to flavoring steaks. However, rosemary is easier to use and goes a long way in terms of flavor. You won’t need to use as much of it, so there will be more left over for you to use in other recipes.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!