Summer Savory Is the Skinny Herb Nobody Knows, But All Cooks Should Grow

Summer savory leaves

Summer savory (Satureja hortensis, native to Southeastern Europe) has been growing on my New York City terrace for four years. The annual cousin to hardy winter savory (Satureja montana), I find it more flexible in culinary applications as its flavor develops during the growing season. While it remains relatively unknown on American shores, I can’t imagine my summer cooking without its thyme-y pungence.

After buying my first, hard-to-find seedling (Editor’s note: Try Silver Heights Farm at Union Square Greenmarket) I never spent another penny, as it self-seeds (maybe too) freely, popping up in spring all over my container garden.

summer savory (1)

The savory growing calendar looks like this:

- May: The tiny volunteer seedlings are identified, the strongest selected and the rest weeded out ruthlessly.

- June: The leaves are fragile and soft and I push tender tips into the cavity of a roast chicken. They make a flavor-popping herb sauce for grilled portobello mushrooms: I chop a whole cup of fresh savory leaves — you can use the tender stalks, too; add a cup of chopped flatleaf parsley and a crushed clove of garlic, and cook both very gently in about four tablespoons of butter. After five minutes, add a squeeze of lemon juice, cook another minute or so for it to caramelize a little, and pour over grilled mushrooms just before eating. I also use it as a substitute for parsley in gremolata to serve with oily fish like mackerel or bluefish.

herb rub for ribs

- July: Plants reach maturity and start losing their flavor-concentrated heads to the kitchen on a regular basis. The midsummer leaves paired with olive oil and an anchovy or two are dribbled over a good steak, or over toasted, salted pieces of sourdough bread as an unconventional snack with drinks. Otherwise use summer savory for a green herb rub – chopped up with some lemon zest and garlic for pork ribs, or underneath the skin of a spatchcocked chicken grilled on the coals.

- August: Right now.  Pretty little white flowers appear. Bees love them.  I begin to pick extravagant bunches for mixing into lamb meatballs with pomegranate molasses and for marinating barbecue-bound butterflied legs of lamb with summer savory and yogurt.

lamb meatballs with summer savory

- September: I cut the plants down, freeing those containers for the sowing of fall salad greens. After a couple of hours in a 200-degree oven, the leaves and seeds will keep in a mason jar through the winter. I’m not much into dried herbs, but I fell in love with the intense, unrestrained flavor of dried summer savory. During the cool and the freezing months the dried herb is added in luxurious pinches to paprikash, or to a bowl of salt and ground paprika as a table condiment, a practice common in Bulgaria.

Summer savory needs full sun to grow well (six hours or more), a daily drink of water and well-drained soil. If you can’t find the plants and seeds in nurseries, at Greenmarkets or online, I can mail out baggies while supplies last. If you’d like some, holler back here in the comments.

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Marie Viljoen is a writer, photographer, gardener and cook. On her tiny Brooklyn terrace she grows vegetables, herbs, strawberries, blueberries and figs. And some flowers, too. She believes in food, flowers and plant you can eat. Her new book is 66 Square Feet - A Delicious Life (Abrams). Marie's urban green and edible blogs are 66 Square Feet and 66 Square Feet (the Food).

  • 08taubg

    I started growing summer savory this summer in a window box on my terrace–it’s willowy and pretty but I’ve hardly used it–this inspired me.

  • http://sillydoggarden.blogspot.com sillydoggarden

    Fresh green beans with butter and a sprinkle of chopped summer savory — it doesn’t get much better than that.

  • Amam4

    My husband and I love to cook but have much to learn.  Recently, we met a couple  from Germany traveling through California and we started to talk about food (what else?).  They told us they use the herb “Bohnenkraut” when cooking.  It turns out that it is the herb “Savory”.    It’s unfortunate that I missed the growing season for this year but will try next spring.  Any ideas if they meant Savory or Summer Savory?

  • http://lwilson.wpengine.com/topics/food-dining/recipes/summer-savory-is-the-skinny-herb-nobody-knows-but-all-cooks-should-grow/ Bob

    Please fix this website, so the pictures are all the same size. You are bouncing the text all over the place and makes it very difficult to read…

  • Daniel L. Levy

    I am just painstakingly separating Satureja hortensis’ tiny seeds from a bunch of dried herb right now. This will be my third Satureja species, as I’m already growing the glorious, indigenous S. thymbra (Pink or Greek Savory) and the somewhat fiddly S. montana (Winter Savory). Here in Israel, these herbs cannot be found commercially, except for Summer Savory greens that are occasionally sold in a few fresh produce markets for the exclusive benefit of the Iranian Jewish community. Some dried herb that is part of a poor quality mixture imported from France called “Herbes de Provence”, can also be purchased, but is not worth the expense. If a Thymol/Carvacrol herb doesn’t “bite back” when you nibble at it, don’t buy it! Pink Savory is abundant in some rocky spots of our Mediterranean region, and is known locally as “Za’athar Rumi”. It is a protected species in the wild, but growing it in a large pot or in a garden is both easy and rewarding.

  • Mary Hicks

    I’ve never grown or tasted summer savory but am so anxious to try it. Do you have any starts still available?

  • D. KAdoves

    can you sent me some of your wonderfully describes seed to start. I have a long growing season and could start them if you can send by mid july

    you can request me address via e-mail request

  • Andrew

    Great article… I’d love to get a few seeds!

  • Andrew

    Great article. I’d love t get a few seeds!

  • Bev Boike

    Hi,
    I grew up with Summer Savory and it is in a lot of our soup recipes but we seem to be having a hard time growing it. Last winter was a tough one in MN and everyone’s Summer Savory has seemed to die out. When we buy it around here in a nursery it turns out to be an annual. Would you be able to send me some of your seed? My mom, myself, and my neighbors would love to get it going again. Right now I only know of a few people who still have there plants growing and they are probably decades old as our recipes go way back to Russia. Thank you so much! Glad you found Summer Savory, it’s amazing in Green Bean Soup.

  • dwneast

    While there are several varieties of ‘savory’, the more delicate, peppery annual ‘summer savory’ has pink flowers while the hardier ‘evergreen’, slightly bitter, perennial ‘winter savory’ has the white flowers.

    They really are different herbs and though supposedly interchangeable in recipes, spice companies should probably distinguish between them, in my opinion.

  • Brenda HurleyPisano

    Love to have some seeds. My grandma used this in many dishes.

  • Justine

    You can get summer savory seeds at Crosman Seed Corp. The packets are 99¢ ea. Go to http://www.crosmanseed.com to download the order form.

  • quency guess

    Marie, My name is Quency Guess and live in Indiana. Though I’m not a professional chef my friends and family consider a damn good cook…… I found your post and had to comment. My first encounter with savory was while I was preping legs of lamb to grill for a party. Had all my ingredients set and realized i had no tyme, then I remember going to this little spice shop in Allentown Pennsylvania where I grabbed a spice that Id not heard of that smelled almost the same, but lite. Well anyway, the lamb was grilled and the delicate taste of the savory didnt take over and mask the taste of the lamb and when I make sausage i use savory as well… BBQ’s are the bomb in the Midwest…. Thank you for your time and thanks for sharing. …….

  • http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/ Marie

    Sounds amazing, Quency!

  • http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/ Marie
  • oddjob

    “Pink Savory is abundant in some rocky spots of our Mediterranean region, and is known locally as “Za’athar Rumi”.”

    Daniel, do you know if this is the same herb the Lebanese (typically) refer to as “Za’athar”?

  • oddjob

    Summer savory is an annual. Are you sure you’re thinking of summer savory and not winter savory?

  • oddjob

    You can also get them from Seed Savers Exchange (even if you are not a member):

    http://www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/Herbs/Herb-Summer-Savory.html