How to Chop Thyme and Other Herbs

Are you new to the kitchen and looking for the best way to chop herbs? Kitchen Expert Jacob Cummings explains exactly how to chop thyme as well as other herbs.

Harvesting Fresh Herbs in Newcastle, Maine

All photos by Jacob Cummings

Chances are that you'll have a recipe that calls for fresh thyme. You’ve tasted it in hundreds of meals—think pot pies and roasted vegetables! It’s that bright flavor that pairs well with citrus, fresh fish and chicken. Thyme is an aromatic herb that is related to mint, oregano, basil, and sage. Its flavor is bright like a lemon and fresh like mint, while also having earthy and flowery tones. For centuries, thyme leaves have been used for cooking, as an herbal antimicrobial medicine, and for ornamental use. Thyme can be consumed either fresh, dried, or cooked, and typically it’s the leaves that are most desired as the stems often become too fibrous for consumption. When Thyme is consumed fresh, typically the flavors will remain gentle and more subtle, while dried thyme will have a more intense flavor that can also lean toward bitterness, so it’s often recommended to use less of dried herbs compared to fresh.

What it’s great for:

  • Adding thyme to a batch of roasted potatoes just before serving will add vivid and complementary flavor to the earthy root vegetable.
  • Fresh thyme leaves mixed into a salad expands the breadth of the flavor toward both bright and earthy.
  • Lamb, beef, chicken, and pork come to life with the addition of thyme. Savory flavors are contrasted with fresh thyme’s lemony presence.

Thyme has an approachable taste and preparing it for cooking is simple. Read on to learn how to properly chop fresh thyme and other herbs easily.

What Is a Sprig of Thyme?

When a recipe calls for a sprig of thyme, this is a direction to use an amount of the herb based on an intuitive estimate, instead of exact measurements. Additionally, a sprig of thyme includes the leaves and the woody stem. When cooking with sprigs of thyme in soups or stews, the fresh thyme leaves will fall off on their own, making it easy to remove the empty stem before serving.

Thyme and Rosemary

Don’t worry! Depending on your comfort and experience with using thyme or similar herbs, it can feel uncertain to know how much to use. Even though a recipe is asking for you to use your intuition, a sprig of thyme is often a small clipping of one branch with two to five smaller branches extending out.

How to Pick Leaves from Thyme

If you’re making a dish that will not require heat, then the leaves will need to be removed from the fibrous and woody stems. One exception is if you’re using tender new-growth stems, then it’s totally okay to chop the stems and add them with the rest of the ingredients.

Steps: 1. Hold the top or end of the stem in one hand. 2. With your other hand, run your thumb and index finger from the top of the stem to the base in the opposite direction of leaf growth. Leaves will break away from the stem as your fingers pass over them. 3. Separate the empty stem from the leaves and make a pile of leaves to prepare for chopping.

How to Chop Thyme

Now that you have a pile of fresh thyme leaves on the chopping board, you can decide how small you want the cuts. Recipes often suggest that the leaves alone are small enough that you can add them whole without chopping. The reason to chop your thyme is that you’ll be able to distribute the taste and texture more evenly throughout the food.

Steps: 1. Carefully pinch the bundle between your fingertips, leaving a portion of the leaves exposed to be chopped. 2. With your other hand, take a knife you are comfortable chopping with and carefully rock the blade in evenly spaced thin strips. It’s not an exact science! 3. If one pass was not enough, you can rotate the pile 90 degrees and chop again, creating smaller bits of the herb. 4. If you wish to mince the thyme, continue to repeat steps one through three until the herb is chopped to your desired size.

How to Chop Other Herbs

Now that we’ve covered how to prep thyme, let’s go over some of its siblings. Oregano and basil are both part of the mint family, along with rosemary and sage.

Oregano

Similar in flavor and appearance, oregano is often listed in recipes as a direct substitute for thyme because they both have a similar combination of bright and earthy flavors and can be used as whole leaves that don’t require chopping. Oregano is great both cooked or uncooked, and fresh or dried. The flavor remains through the cooking process, so it’s often best for adding at the beginning of a recipe along with onions or carrots while they sauté.

Preparing Oregano for Cooking

Separated from the stem

The stem on a sprig of oregano will be too woody to use in cooking, requiring the leaves to be removed by hand.

To prepare a sprig of oregano, you can use the same method described above for stripping thyme of its leaves by pinching the top with one hand and running the stem between two fingers on the other hand.

How To Chop Fresh Oregano

The leaves of fresh oregano are small and hearty. Chopping them can be as simple as making a pile and carefully cutting them into your desired size.

Basil, Mint, and Sage

Mint, Basil, Sage and Parsley

The leaves of basil, mint, and sage all bring their own unique flavorful dynamic to recipes. Basil and mint have a vastly green flavor while sage has a flowering and savory essence. Each of these herbs shares the same prep method, so we’ll cover all three here.

Removing and Preparing the Leaves

The stems of these herbs are usually soft and tender and might introduce unwanted bitter flavors to a dish. Removing the stems requires a slightly different method for removing the stems.

Steps: 1. Rinse the sprigs and shake off excess water. 2. Pluck the leaves from the main stem using two fingers. You can also snip with a pair of kitchen shears. 3. It’s okay to leave or remove the short stem extending from the leaf. 4. Once all leaves have been plucked, stack them into a pile. 5. Carefully holding the stack under the fingers of one hand, and a knife in the other hand, make even slices across the stack of herbs. 6. Repeat steps four and five until the herbs are reduced to your desired size.

Recipes and Inspiration

I value having fun in the kitchen by exploring different ways to prepare meals, using an inspiring recipe or any great idea passed along from another cook. My favorite recipes change the way I think about a specific ingredient. Both of the following resources have shown me how wonderful the nuances of an ingredient can subtly or dramatically change the flavor of a dish.

  • Mark Bittman: The first time I’d encountered a loose-form recipe was through Bittman. His book, How to Cook Everything, gently guided me toward enjoying cooking, despite not always having every necessary ingredient and having to substitute alternatives.
  • Cooks Illustrated: I never paid mind to this publication until someone showed me how much I could learn about the science of cooking from one article. Cooks Illustrated is always exploring how to curiously perfect the art of cooking. Playful and serious, this magazine continues to open my mind.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you found this guide for chopping thyme helpful in some way. If you still have questions about preparing herbs or finding the right equipment for your kitchen, you are welcome to chat with one of our Kitchen Experts. All of them have a passion for connecting people with exactly the right tools for all their cooking needs.

Kitchen Expert Jacob Cummings
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Jacob Cummings
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As a kid I didn’t understand the privilege I was being given when mom asked me to pick the several pounds of blueberries from out in the garden. I actually resented it, but after a couple seasons I began trying the different shapes and sizes of the berry and began to fall in love with their variety...

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