Mexican oregano is an underrated and often mistaken herb. A champion of Mexican, Latin American, and American Southwest cuisines, its pungent, citrusy leaves and flower buds are a must-have for salsas, chili recipes, beans, moles, braised meats, and marinades.
What is Mexican Oregano?
As the name suggests, Mexican oregano is a key ingredient in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Our chili powders are incomplete without this ground herb—standing up to other bold, competing flavors like cumin and chile peppers. Practically all of our Mexican and southwest-inspired spice blends incorporate freshly ground Mexican oregano.
Mexican oregano (lippia graveolens) is a plant native to Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest. The herby shrub has been used by indigenous peoples of these regions for centuries. Traditionally, Mexican oregano is used in medicinal tea for respiratory and digestive complaints, but is found in indigenous cuisine too. The famous Tarahumara people of Copper Canyon, Mexico use this herb in many recipes, but most notably in pinole recipes—a meal made from dried corn kernels that are toasted and ground.
Today the herb is still enjoyed throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and greater Central America. You may encounter it as Mexican sage or Mexican marjoram.
If you enjoy making chili con carne, you’ll need some Mexican oregano. This was common knowledge in the 19th century, as cooks on cattle drives would plant chile peppers, onions, and Mexican oregano at certain points along the trail. Chuck wagon cooks would return to their wild gardens and prepare chili con carne with fresh ingredients.
Mexican Oregano vs. Greek Oregano
Mexican oregano is commonly mistaken for its cousin Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare). Although, they’re more like step cousins, because the two don’t even share a taxonomic family. Greek oregano is part of the mint or Lamiaceae family, and Mexican oregano is part of the verbena or Verbenaceae family. The two smell very similar, especially in dried form. This is due to the high presence of thymol in the essential oils of each plant. Thymol is a chemical compound found in other herbs such as marjoram, wild bergamot, and thyme.
Mexican oregano is stronger than its Greek doppelgänger. It is a robust additive that adds a perky top note to many dishes. While they have similar flavors, they are not perfect substitutes for each other.
How To Cook with Mexican Oregano
Tap a few Mexican oregano leaves into your palm and crush them with the opposing thumb to release earthy aromas of citrus, eucalyptus, and faint anise seed. Its flavor is astringent, similar to lemon peel.
The zesty nature of this herb lends itself well to hearty foods like beans, chili, stewed meats, and mole sauce. It makes a good leading flavor in milder marinades for poultry and fish, especially when paired with citrus and alliums. A simple and delicious marinade can be made using fresh lemon juice, minced garlic, olive oil, and a sprinkle of Mexican oregano. Whisk it all together and it’s ready for fish, chicken, or summer squash. Swap the lemon juice for orange and try using it to marinate pork. Mexican oregano is a tasty condiment at the table too. Crush it gently between your fingers to garnish soups, tacos, beans, or rice.
At many Mexican restaurants and taquerias you're often served complimentary pickled vegetables, including carrots, onions, and jalapeños. (Often described as jalapeños con vinagre or escabeche.) Those pickled veggies are traditionally seasoned with a healthy pinch of this oregano.
Spices to pair with Mexican oregano are allspice, annatto, anise seed, bay leaf, cacao, cumin, coriander, Ceylon cinnamon, chile peppers, cilantro, cloves, epazote, fennel seed, black peppercorns, sesame seed, thyme, and marjoram.
Mexican oregano complements ingredients like corn, cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, beans, rice, cabbage, lemon, lime, orange, pineapple, garlic, onion, potatoes, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, squash, pumpkin, mushrooms, avocado, radish, lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and fish.
Alternative for Cilantro
Many of our customers are happy to find that Mexican oregano makes an excellent substitute for cilantro. The two herbs are not perfect substitutes for each other, however Mexican oregano satisfies the final herbal accent needed when cilantro is removed from a dish, particularly freshly made salsa or guacamole.
A select population of humans claim that cilantro has an awful taste like soap or metal. There are even genetic studies to support those claims. Cilantro has become one of those things people love to hate. “Hate” is not in our vocabulary at the Spice House, but we do love our Mexican oregano as a delicious alternative to cilantro. Try starting out with this Cilantro-free Salsa recipe. If you can help it, let the salsa sit overnight. All the flavors will improve and intensify, especially with your new favorite herb.
Cilantro-Free Pico De Gallo
More Mexican Oregano Recipes
New Mexican Posole
Creamy Queso Dip
Turkey with Poblano Mole Sauce
Gourmet Pickled Jalapeños
Article by Geoff Marshall, Staff Writer