Does Thyme Go in Spaghetti Sauce? – All You Need To Know

Marria Beklavac By Marria Beklavac

Real pasta lovers know how important is every aspect of preparing high-quality sauce! it takes a few steps for a sauce to go from regular to 5-star.

Herbs are background ingredients many people don’t pay attention to, but they make the biggest change. Let’s talk about the queen itself – thyme and how to use it in spaghetti sauce.

Thyme is an inevitable part of every good Italian spaghetti sauce, along with tomato, garlic, and a few other herbs. It plays a huge role in balancing out acidic flavors while enhancing all the right notes. It is best to add dry thyme at the very beginning of simmering as it releases its aroma slowly and enriches the taste as it cooks. There are a few herbs worthy of replacement, though, which will give similar effects as thyme.

I could eat pasta every day, so it’s not a surprise I have a whole cupboard dedicated to different herbs and spices. Thyme is the first one I reach out for when making any tomato-based sauce. Scroll down to see why they are a match made in heaven!

Does Thyme Belong in Spaghetti Sauce?

Traditionally, thyme is a huge part of Italian cuisine, both dried and fresh. Speaking of fresh thyme, it is amazing to sprinkle in different dressings and salads, while dried thyme is more suitable for cooked meals.

You will find it everywhere, from stews, over pasta sauces, to simple roasted vegetables. To make good spaghetti sauce you need a fine-quality tomato base and herbs to boost flavor, anything else is an addition only. You can go with minced beef, Italian sausage, eggplant, carrot, onion, garlic, and many more.

Besides basil, parsley, and rosemary, thyme will add so much flavor to the sauce. If you search the web for authentic Italian spaghetti sauce recipes, each one will have thyme in it, and for a good reason.

Not only homemade ones, though, but also canned, commercial sauces have thyme in the recipe as a natural flavor enhancer.

Thyme has super interesting notes which go from citrusy to woody, and everything in between. But, let’s see how this complements other ingredients of spaghetti sauce!

Slow-cooked tomatoes have a rich, slightly acidic, but still sweet flavor. Thyme actually complements those notes without smothering them but rather enhancing them. Scroll down to see the science behind this!

Umami flavors of tomato shine when paired with the herb because of its floral aspect. For an even better and richer smack, roast tomatoes before simmering them into a sauce. That way their umami flavors intensify, making thyme pop along the way, as it works well with tartness.

Mediterranean Holy Trinity: garlic, olive oil, and lemon all go finely with thyme. While simmering (or roasting), garlic loses the pungent aroma and becomes delicate, buttery, and sweet, so peppery notes of thyme give a nice and subtle contrast. 

The same principle stands for grassy olive oil, but thyme’s floral notes are the center of attention here. 

The aromatic herb pairs impeccably with extra virgin olive oil, creating a unique flavor profile. This is maybe unconventional for classic spaghetti, but a squeeze of lemon right before serving truly brightens up this meal.

A touch of citrus enhances not only the hearty smack of the meat but herby aspect of the sauce, as well. Clearly, a sprinkle of thyme adds depth to this classic sauce, so there is no reason not to add it.

How Does Thyme Enhance Spaghetti Sauce?

If you go more in-depth into thyme flavor layers, you will probably be pleasantly surprised. It is actually very similar to mint, as it leaves that ‘minty’, cooling sensation on the palate, but with far less intensity, of course. 

Lemony and earthy notes are not as prominent, though, but they subtly skyrocket the taste of other ingredients with similar flavor aspects. For example, lemon juice and tomatoes have more potent flavors when paired with the herb. 

When you taste well-prepared, herb-rich sauce, every other will taste insipid on the palate. Speaking of herbs, they are in fact the main source of aroma and flavor, because, without them, you would have a bland and boring dish on your table.

Besides obvious – thyme – basil, parsley, and oregano are the blends to choose from. You can mix them all together if you really like the herby taste on your palate. In that case, it is better to use dried oregano and thyme, plus fresh parsley and basil, just to layer the aromas and flavors.

All of these herbs have two things in common – peppery and earthy notes, which work especially well in dishes that include tomato and meat. 

There is one more reason why you should not skip thyme in spaghetti sauce, and this one is absolutely scientific. It is a well-known fact that tomatoes are an acidic ingredient, but what you may not know, thyme is completely the opposite – an alkaline ingredient. 

That’s why it balances the smack of tomato so well, even without adding sugar or cream! It also counteracts the sweet notes of tomato with its earthiness, soothing the flavors to perfection. 

A sprinkle of thyme will give you the best tomato taste, without it becoming too tart and overwhelming. 

When Should I Add Thyme to My Spaghetti Sauce?

Thyme is not your usual herb, as it has a much more pungent, intense aroma and flavor. That means it won’t wash out when cooked for a long time but on the contrary.

This is by far the best herb to use in slow-cooked dishes, as the flavor becomes richer and more delicate the longer it simmers. It gradually infuses the sauce with the signature flavor, making it reach its full complexity. 

Of course, you can add it in different stages of cooking, but note that the overall taste will be different. If you add dry thyme at the end of cooking, it won’t reach its full potential, as it needs some time to rehydrate.

If not in the start, add it at least throughout the middle of simmering, so it can release the signature flavors. If you’re making quick spaghetti sauce, definitely opt for fresh thyme.

Add it at the end of cooking, and call it a day! That way you will get the signature aroma but for far less time.

Fresh vs Dried Thyme: Which is Better for My Sauce?

Naturally, there are a few differences in flavors of fresh and dried thyme, but they are subtle. Fresh thyme, expectedly, has a brighter, herbier smack ideal for topping the sauce before serving.

The aroma is strong, but the taste is not as potent as when dried. That’s why it can be an amazing topping without overpowering the other flavors.

Dried thyme is, undoubtedly, stronger, so always use it in sauce that you intend to simmer for a long. It will secure the layers of aroma but soothed flavor.

Of course, you can change it for one another, just be mindful of amounts. As said above, dried thyme is stronger than fresh, so if the recipe says a tablespoon of fresh, use 1 teaspoon of dried.

Thyme Pairing and Flavor Combinations

Italian cuisine is one of the best ones out there! It is rich in spices, herbs, and fresh ingredients. When it comes to herbs, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, bay, sage, and marjoram are Italian staples – it may seem a lot, but each meal calls for a different blend.

But they all have one thing in common – they pair with each other flawlessly! You can use any combination of these and it will be amazing.

For those who love to explore different flavor combinations, thyme goes excellently with lavender, too! You can use it to boost the floral notes of the sauce.

If you want to add a touch of warmth to the sauce, try nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, or cumin as they also pair with the herb. These spices have actually similar flavor profiles – peppery, citrusy, earthy, and floral, some more than others.

Adding more vegetables into the sauce won’t only jack up the nutritional value of the sauce, but also enhance the taste of thyme. Carrots, beans, mushrooms, eggplants, onions, or any other winter vegetable will work as a charm in this combination!

When it comes to spicing things up, you can add ground ginger, pepper flakes, or chili. They pair particularly well!

Essential Tips for Using Thyme in Spaghetti Sauce

Adding too much thyme to the recipe can overpower every other flavor. Thus, it is super important to incorporate it carefully, especially if you’re only starting to explore different herbs.

The best is to start with one teaspoon of dry or one tablespoon of fresh thyme. It may seem like a tiny amount, but due to its pungency, it is more than enough. Of course, you can always add more if you feel like it.

After a few prepared sauces, you will know your ideal amount! Also, if you have a recipe that calls for a sprig of thyme, that is approximately half of a teaspoon of dried.

It is super flavorful to cook with a whole sprig, too, but even stem is very thin, it is still woody. That’s why you should remove it from the pot when the sauce is cooked.

When you cook with a sprig, you will get more layers of flavor, but using only leaves is enough, to be honest.

If you want to substitute thyme in the recipe, go for oregano or basil, without a question. Both of these herbs are amazing in pasta sauces and will offer similar notes as thyme. You can treat them the same!

And lastly, if you have fresh thyme on your hands, this is a foolproof method to keep it fresh forever! Don’t keep it in the water, but rather swathe it in a moistened paper towel and store it in a zip lock bag. It is best to change it every few days, though.

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By Marria Beklavac Owner
Hey there! I'm Marria Beklavac, a barista by trade and a cook by heart. My culinary journey started at 12, inspired by my grandpa, who first introduced me to the wonders of cooking. His passion sparked mine, leading me to a life where each meal is an adventure. In Terra's Kitchen, I blend my love for coffee with my zeal for cooking to share my culinary exploits with you. This blog is my space to share the joys, discoveries, and lessons from my kitchen to yours. Welcome aboard – let's cook up some magic together!