Summer Savory is a small and pungent herb, native to the Mediterranean. It is well known in the south of France, used freely in Europe and the Middle East, and is essential to the Acadian culinary tradition of Canada’s Atlantic coast. But for many American gardeners and cooks, this easy-to-grow annual remains unknown or is confused with its perennial cousin, Winter Savory.
In my Brooklyn kitchen, it is a much-loved and essential part of my seasonal cooking; I harvest it from window boxes on my small terrace, where it shares space with sun-loving Lavender and Portulaca.
Summer Savory’s botanical name is Satureja hortensis, and it belongs to the Mint family (Lamiaceae). The pretty little plant has elongated leaves resembling a cross between the stubby foliage of Thyme and needle-like Rosemary. Crushing and sniffing a handful on a summer day is like inhaling a tonic.
This versatile herb has a flavor similar to Thyme or Oregano, when cooked it adds an intense peppery hit to dishes. Long associated with bean dishes, Summer Savory contains the phenol carvacol whose carminative properties may tame the gas that legumes can produce. But its uses throughout history go beyond the dinner table and up to the bedroom. Ancient Romans believed Summer Savory to be a natural aphrodisiac and its lusty reputation even meant it was banned from being grown in the gardens of European monastries.
In France, Summer Savory is called Sarriette, and it is an ingredient in the classic Herbes de Provence mixture. Hungarians like it (they call it Borsikafű). It's big in eastern Europe, in general. Germans love Summer Savory with beans (they call it Bohnenkraut bean herb). It is often the basis of regional Middle Eastern za’atar spice mixes. On Canada’s east coast Summer Savory (carried across the ocean by French colonists) is absolutely necessary for dishes such as Fricot (a stew made with potatoes and chicken, fish, or rabbit), and for poultry dressing, especially at Thanksgiving. For a Canadian friend, the dish is a comforting aroma, reminiscent of winter afternoons spent snowshoeing.
Stateside, I have never seen Summer Savory sold fresh-cut anywhere, and the seedlings are hard to find at nurseries. Luckily, it is easily grown from seed - ordered online - or saved from the previous season (once planted you will never run out because it self-seeds exceptionally freely!).
Summer Savory grows best in full sun - in-ground or in pots - with excellent drainage; like most Mediterranean herbs it dislikes having wet feet. Thanks to its manageable size, it suits compact gardens could even manage on a sunny windowsill. Its seeds will germinate outdoors once night-time temperatures are reliably above 50’F (10°C). Pinching back the leaves on young seedlings will encourage the Savory to bush out and be more productive.
At maturity, the plants top out at about ten-to-sixteen inches tall, depending on where they are growing (my windowbox plants are on the small side) and they develop woody stems as summer progresses. Appearing in late summer, its tiny white flowers are highly attractive to all pollinators, but especially bees.
In Brooklyn, New York, my own Summer Savory growing and eating calendar looks like this:
The tiny volunteer seedlings emerge. I prevent crowding by thinning some out.
The leaves and stems are fragile and soft and can be chopped up together. Dress some just-boiled, still-hot green beans with the Savory and slick of good olive oil.
I push tender tips into the cavity of a roast chicken. They make a flavor-popping herb sauce for grilled mushrooms: Chop a cup of fresh Savory leaves and tender stalks, add a cup of chopped parsley and a crushed clove of garlic, and cook both very gently in four tablespoons of butter. After five minutes, add a squeeze of lemon juice, cook another minute or so for the sauce to caramelize a little, and pour over grilled mushrooms just before eating.
I also use Summer Savory as a flavor-packed stand in for parsley in gremolata to serve with oily fish like mackerel or bluefish.
Plants reach maturity. The midsummer leaves cooked gently in melted butter are a delicious topping for seven-minute eggs or pan-fried mushrooms.
A generous handful warmed with olive oil and an anchovy or two and drizzled over a good steak, or across melted mozzarella on bruschetta, is memorably good. Or chop it up with lemon zest and garlic as a marinade for ribs or a whole, grilled fish.
Abundant, dainty white flowers appear on stems that have become woody. I begin to pick extravagant bunches and stripping the leaves off for mixing into lamb meatballs with pomegranate molasses and for marinating barbecue-bound butterflied legs of lamb with yogurt.
Fresh Summer Savory is an excellent alternative to basil for topping ripe heirloom tomatoes. And turn ordinary chevre or feta extraordinary by marinating a slab in extra virgin olive oil with Summer Savory, overnight (keep refrigerated).
I cut the branches and spread them across parchment to dry (you could hang them in bunches too, but the tiny seeds will drop out, and you want to save those). The dry leaves and seeds will keep in a mason jar through the winter.
During the cool and the freezing months I add the preserved Summer Savory in luxurious pinches to paprikash, or to a little dish of salt and ground paprika as a table condiment (a practice common in Bulgaria). Dried Summer Savory is delicious in slow-cooked cassoulet or any dish that relies on beans. And makes the best tomato sauce for pizza and pasta.
Photos: © Marie Viljoen