Conventional cooking wisdom dictates that fresh herbs are always preferable to dried. A generation ago, you might find fresh parsley in the supermarket produce section, but that would be it. Today, fresh herbs crowd an entire section and “gourmet” recipes demand the just-picked stuff.
Some fresh herbs are, indeed, superior to their dried relatives a few aisles away. Basil is the most obvious example. It shares its subtle anise-mint flavor only when it’s newly plucked. But oregano? I don’t agree with the trend to cooking with this herb before it’s dried, especially if it was grown in a hot house or hydroponically, as so many commercially-grown herbs are.
Oregano, in Italy, is the Neapolitan pizza herb. For making the finest pizza at home, the type of oregano you choose makes a dramatic impact.
Origanum vulgare is wild oregano that grows like a weed in the dry rocky hills of the Mediterranean basin. It is flavored by the terroir, the unique combination of soil and climate that supports it. The most exquisite sweet-yet-pungent oregano I ever tasted was on the island of Crete; the locals called it “dittany of Crete.”
Rosetta Costantino writes in My Calabria (Norton) that no one in that part of southern Italy grows oregano in a home garden. “Many Calabrians dry their own oregano, collecting a year’s supply while on a hike or a summer picnic in the country, then tying the stems together in bundles and hanging them upside down in a shady spot to dry. Because the herb remains on the stem, it retains far more aroma than the musty loose leaves available in jars in supermarkets.”
OK, so it’s not realistic, or affordable, to jet to Italy to procure the best oregano. But any well-stocked Italian food shop near you will have oregano dried on the stems. You can also find it on the web, but the price is likely to be higher.
To store, keep the oregano in the original bag, well sealed after each use, in a cool dark pantry. If lack of space is an issue, carefully remove the dried leaves and flowers from the stems and transfer them to a dry glass jar before storing. Discard the stems.
With each use, rub the dried leaves and flowers between your fingers as you sprinkle them over the pizza. This simple act helps to release the flavor oils. When you find your Mediterranean oregano, try it with this Pizza Aglio e Olio. The fruity olive oil and sweet roasted garlic make a wonderful counterpoint to the pungent oregano.