You don’t have to be a professional cook or a foodie to know that your food’s flavor matters. Even if you’re just preparing a meal for yourself, one of your goals in the kitchen is to produce a consistently tasty dish that you actually want to eat. In many cases, this involves using fresh local herbs and just the right quantity of seasoning. If you don’t have the right herb, however, finding a marjoram alternative can be tricky.
Believe it or not, this is a thing that serious chefs have to deal with all the time. While our herb cupboards might be better stocked than yours, there’s no magic gremlin that ensures we always have a supply of every seasoning from every cuisine.
What Is Marjoram?
Marjoram is used pretty commonly in recipes from around the Mediterranean sea. It’s a flavorful herb from the mint family that’s actually pretty closely related to oregano.
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Marjoram vs Oregano
Both marjoram and oregano belong to the same plant family. They look quite similar and even have a similar aroma and taste. Oregano is a bit stronger, however, and has less “hair” on its leaves. The flavor that each herb gives your dish is fairly different, with oregano giving off strong pizza vibes. To me, marjoram reminds me very heavily of Turkish food.
Tips For Substituting Marjoram
If you need to substitute something for marjoram, here are some of the best things you can do while still creating a tasty dish.
1. Fresh Means Fresh
One of the most striking differences between a professionally prepared dish and one that’s made by an amateur is the quality of the herbs used. Herbs have a very, very striking flavor profile when they’re used fresh. When you grind up an herb and let it sit in your cupboard for months or years you start to lose a lot of that flavor. You can still make food that tastes good, sure, but you won’t get the same distinctive taste and you’ll have to vary the proportions a lot.
This means if your recipe calls for fresh marjoram you ideally want to use another fresh herb. Oregano is probably your best bet, followed by thyme, sage, and basil. Your recipe will definitely taste different, but it will still taste strong and fresh.
2. Accept Change
There are two types of recipes: baking recipes, which you usually need to follow precisely, and everything else, which you don’t. In other words, your meat or vegetable recipe that contains marjoram is more of a guideline. As long as you fully cook the meat you’re preparing you can make just about any substitution you want.
For me, this is a very liberating feeling. Since I know that I can make any change I want to the seasoning of a recipe, I get to experiment to my heart’s content. Sure, I might not make a dish that tastes quite the same as what the celebrity chef is making on TV, but it still tastes great.
When it comes to straight substitutions, one of the things that I like to do is deliberately break the mold. If I know I don’t have marjoram I won’t try to find the closest thing. Instead, I’ll deliberately use an herb that changes the character of the dish. I’m a really big fan of fresh basil, so it’s definitely my go-to for seasoning a marjoram-based recipe when I’m all out of marjoram. This makes the resulting food taste quite a bit different, of course, but it’s totally fine with me.
Think of it like making a different related dish that you happen to like better. As long as you stick with flavors you enjoy you’ll come out fine. Do bear in mind that you might need to change some complimentary herbs and spices, too, but you’ll figure that out as you experiment.
3. Taste And Adjust
So let’s say that you want to prepare a family member’s recipe as closely as you can. This recipe calls for marjoram, which you’re out of, and you want to keep the flavor of the dish fairly close.
What should you do?
Oregano isn’t exactly the same as marjoram, but it does have a reasonably close flavor profile. It’s your best marjoram alternative in almost every case, and while it’s a bit stronger, the amount of oregano you should use is pretty close to the amount of marjoram the original recipe calls for. Simply fill your measuring tool a little bit less and you should be good to go.
This doesn’t mean you’re all done, however. An important part of cooking is the practice of constantly tasting your food and adjusting the flavor as you cook. Once you’ve thrown in your oregano, give your dish a taste! This can mean mixing an extra bit of rub to put on your finger, dipping a spoon into your stew, or cutting off a small part of meat before you serve things to your guests.
After you’ve tasted your dish, make adjustments! Are things too salty? Are they not salty enough? Would a bit of lemon juice improve the flavor? What about more oregano? If you take the time to make these adjustments, taste things again, and then fine tune things as needed, you’ll consistently get great-tasting food regardless of the substitutions you use. Just adjust as you go in order to keep things perfect.
It’s worth noting that many flavors will change as food cooks, meaning you shouldn’t do all of your tastings at a single stage of cooking. This is especially important with slow-cooked dishes. Be sure to taste things multiple times as you go along!
4. The Dried Marjoram Substitute
Dried herbs don’t have a lot of flavors compared to fresh ones. This means that you’re much more likely to be able to substitute dried oregano for dried marjoram without anyone noticing. You’ll still want to taste your food and adjust things as you go, of course, but you can often bury the flavor a little bit so your family can’t tell that you changed things.
Again, oregano is slightly stronger than marjoram and definitely tastes a bit different. You may get a more “Italian” or “pizza-like” vibe from a dish when you substitute oregano for marjoram. As long as it tastes good, however, you’re totally fine! Try using other dried herbs as well, like thyme, basil, and sage. The flavor will be more different but it probably won’t be worse.
Marjoram Substitutes: The Definitive List
If you don’t care about any of this theory and you just want a spice you can use in place of marjoram, here’s a list of the herbs I would use, in order.
Oregano is closely related to marjoram. It’s a fairly good flavor match, too, although it’s not perfect. Be wary of making your dish taste too much like pizza if that’s not what you’re going for.
While basil and marjoram taste pretty different, they’re used in similar ways. Think of it like the difference between vanilla and chocolate. A chocolate ice cream cone won’t taste the same as a vanilla one, but it’s still the best substitute if you’re not too picky with the results.
Thyme has a wonderful flavor that adds a lot of complexity to a dish. It’s an excellent way to make your marjoram-based dish taste good without using any of the herbs above.
I’ve had a sage plant in my garden for as long as I can remember, so it’s extra easy for me to use fresh sage in place of marjoram. Again, this herb won’t taste quite the same, but it still gives your dish plenty of dimensions.
When substituting herbs, be mindful of how strong each plant is. Try deliberately using too little at first and adjusting as you go. You’ll get a much more consistent result that’s far less likely to accidentally overpower the taster.
Substituting Marjoram In Your Dishes
There’s nothing that’s quite as good as marjoram at giving you a distinctly Mediterranean flavor. If you don’t have any handy, however, you can use the tips above to substitute another herb for marjoram while still producing a tasty dish. Remember to taste as you go, experiment plenty, and try to use fresh herbs when you can. You’ll really notice a big difference!