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Summer Savory: A Herb With Flavour, Aroma, and Many Uses
A Flavourful Culinary Herb
Summer savory, or Satureja hortensis, is an annual herb which imparts a strong and delicious flavour to food. Its taste is reminiscent of both oregano and thyme and produces a peppery sensation in the mouth. The herb is a member of the mint family and is very aromatic, especially when it's fresh. It's a useful plant to have in the kitchen in either a fresh or a dried form.
A Useful Plant
Summer savory has been a popular additon to food since ancient times. It has also been used medicinally. The herb has traditionally been used as an expectorant for clearing mucus from the lungs, a medicine to stop diarrhea, a treatment for bee and wasp stings, and an aphrodisiac. Today there is scientific evidence that summer savory oil can kill germs, at least in the lab. The essential oil obtained from the distillation of the herb contains carvacrol, an antibacterial and antifungal chemical. The herb with the lovely name may therefore be useful for more than just flavouring food.
Winter savory (Satureja montana) has a somewhat similar flavour to summer savory. However, the taste is more pungent and the aroma is more like pine, making winter savory less popular as a culinary herb. Some people do enjoy the stronger taste of winter savory, however. Cooking the herb reduces its pungency but can also reduce its flavour.
The genus name Satureja may have come from the word satyr. Satyrs were mythical creatures of Ancient Greece. They looked like a man but had the ears and tail of a horse and a notable phallus. In some versions of the myth, a satyr was half human and half goat. Satyrs were said to live in meadows filled with summer savory plants, which acted as an aphrodisiac.
The Summer Savory Plant
Summer savory is native to southern Europe but is grown as a cultivated plant in many parts of the world. Mature plants are twelve to eighteen inches tall. They have narrow, elongated leaves which are grey-green to dark green in colour and sometimes have a purplish tint. The stems are green when young but often develop a red or purple tinge as they age. The herb produces small white, lavender, or pink flowers that are tubular in shape.
Summer savory can be grown in herb gardens, in containers, and indoors. Wherever it grows, the plant needs to receive lots of full sunlight. The leaves and stems are tender when young and can be eaten when just picked or after being dried. Like other culinary herbs, summer savory plants are tied in bundles and then hung upside down to dry. Some people add the fresh leaves to vinegar to preserve their flavour.
Winter savory is also native to southern Europe and grown in many other areas. Unlike summer savory, it's a perennial and is hardy to Zone 6 on the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This means that it can survive at a winter temperature down to -10° Fahrenheit.
Photos of the Herb
Both summer and winter savory belong to the Lamiaceae or mint family. Summer savory is an annual herb while winter savory is a perennial, evergreen plant. Winter savory has stiffer leaves than summer savory and becomes woody as it ages.
Uses of Summer Savory
Summer savory is a wonderful addition to any savory food. It goes well with beans, vegetables, eggs, fish, poultry, and meats. It's added to rice, sausages, stuffing, pies, and stir-fries and is a great ingredient in soups and stews. Summer savory is also used to make herb cheese, herb butter, and herbal teas. I like to add savory leaves to potato salads and mashed potato. The leaves are sometimes added to potpourris due to their strong aroma.
Summer savory is a component of the herbal mixture known as "Herbes de Provence". This mixture was originally associated with the region of Provence in France and was made from savory and other herbs that grew locally, such as thyme, basil, fennel, marjoram, and lavender flowers. The modern product varies in composition and is often produced in other areas of the world instead of Provence, but it generally still contains savory.
Herbes de Provence is used to season grilled and barbecued meats and is added to stews and breads. As with all herbs and spices, individuals have their own favourite ways to use thIs tasty mixture of plants.
Green Beans and Savory
The Bean Herb
Summer Savory for Bean Digestion
In Germany, summer savory is known as bohnenkraut, which means "bean herb". It's added to beans not only to improve their taste but also to prevent the flatulence that people often experience after eating beans.
Beans don't cause me any problems even when I don't add summer savory to them, so I can't report on the effectiveness of savory for dealing with bean difficulties. I buy canned beans which were soaked before being canned and start by eating small quantities of beans if I haven't eaten them for a while. Both of these strategies help the body to process beans.
Why Do Beans Cause Flatulence?
Beans contain raffinose and stachyose, two sugars which belong to a family called the oligosaccharides. Our bodies can't digest these sugars, so they pass from our small intestine into our large intestine unaltered. (Digestion is normally finished and its products absorbed in the small intestine.) Bacteria in the large intestine ferment the oligosaccharides, producing gases such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane, which we expel.
Preventing Flatulence from Beans
There are a variety of ways to reduce or prevent gas buildup caused by eating beans. This is good because beans are very nutritious and healthy foods. They really should be part of our diet. In addition to the possible benefit of summer savory, the following techniques can be useful when we want to eat beans.
- Soaking dried beans in water overnight and then discarding the soaking water before cooking the beans in fresh water is one way to reduce the level of the problematic sugars.
- If you buy canned beans, check the producer's website to see if the beans are soaked before cooking. This is more likely to be true if you buy organic beans.
- An enzyme called alpha galactosidase digests the bean sugars and can be bought in grocery stores. Beano is one product that contains the enzyme.
- Eating small quantities of beans to begin with and then gradually increasing the serving size over time helps many people. The body is often able to improve its ability to deal with bean sugars if beans are consumed regularly.
How to Soak Beans
Antibacterial and Antifungal Action of Summer Savory
As is true in many other herbs and spices, the essential oil of summer savory kills certain bacteria and fungi, at least in laboratory equipment. However, the quantity of essential oil in the intact herb and the amount of the antimicrobial chemical carvacrol within this oil—as well as the amount of another antimicrobial chemical called thymol— vary considerably. The quantities depend on factors such as the variety of savory, the environment in which the plant is grown, and the method of drying the herb.
Summer savory oil might be able to act as a food preservative. In the lab it kills some common bacteria that make food unsafe to eat. It's also been found to kill certain bacteria and yeasts that cause diseases in humans. However, just because a substance is antimicrobial in a laboratory container or in a lab animal doesn't mean that it will also kill microbes in humans. Inside our body, the substance may be inactivated, diluted, or excreted before it can work.
Interest in other species of Satureja besides summer and winter savory is growing. Herbs have much to offer us in the form of novel taste and perhaps medicinal benefits.
Other Health Benefits of the Plant
As is the case with most herbs eaten by humans, summer savory is said to have many health benefits. While these benefits may be real, most haven't been tested by scientists. It's important to keep this in mind when using summer savory medicinally. It's also important to avoid an excessive intake of the herb. The plant is safe to eat in normal food quantities and is a great addition to the diet. Many foods are safe or beneficial in moderate quantities but harmful in excessive amounts, however.
There is at least one generally accepted benefit of summer savory and other herbs. Using tasty herbs to flavour our food can reduce or eliminate the need for added salt.
A Container Garden Tour: Summer Savory and Other Herbs
Sow seeds directly into the ground or in flats no more than 1/8 inch deep or just scattered on top of the soil. Space or thin to 10 inches apart.— PennState Extension (Summer Savory)
A Savory Taste Poll
Do you prefer the taste of summer savory or of winter savory?
Herbs for Health
Although lab tests have shown that essential oils from herbs can be effective in killing microbes, we don't know the quantity of antimicrobial chemicals in the version of the herbs that we buy or grow. Therefore it's a great idea to add a wide variety of herbs to our food, including summer savory, to give us the best chance of benefiting from germ-destroying chemicals. The herbs will have the added advantage of making food taste delicious.
Growing summer savory from University of Illinois Extension
Cooking beans to reduce flatulence from the University of California, Davis
Carvacrol in summer savory from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Antibacterial properties of summer savory essential oil from PubMed Central Canada and the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology
© 2012 Linda Crampton