Basil is a fragrant herb with around 60 different types and a subtle flavour (when used correctly) that is used in salads, Pilafs, Sauces and Purees such as Pistou and Pesto, and Pickles throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and SE Asia.
You might like to try our recipes that use Basil – you can find them here.
Using the Most Common Basil – Sweet Basil
Sweet Basil is the ultimate compliment to tomatoes, and pairs stunningly with onions, garlic and olives. It combines well with some other herbs including summer savory, rosemary and sage. As heat causes the volatile oils to dissipate, always add basil towards the end of cooking. The leaves are the prime part used, small stems are OK but the larger stalks should be discarded. The stems and large veins contain a compound that will cause pesto to turn brown and dark. The flowers are edible, so use them to decorate your salads. Note that there is an enzymatic reaction between basil and flour, so if making pasta, don’t include basil in the pasta, and if serving pesto with pasta, add some lemon juice to the cooking water to help keep the pasta from turning brown.
Basil has a strong and striking flavour, so don’t use more than the recipe states. The best flavours are obtained before the plant flowers.
Use basil fresh, as it does not dry successfully. An exception is in the spice mix khmeli-suneli where dried basil is an ingredient. The delicate aroma of basil is quickly destroyed by heat, so in most cases, they are used raw. In addition, refrigeration ruins the flavour of basil – try to use quickly and store out of the fridge. If you can, keep basil growing in pots in a sunny space, even indoors in a sunny window. If you don’t have that luxury, find fresh basil leaves in most local grocery stores, looking for fresh, vibrant green leaves with no black spots or signs of decay.
If you must store in the fridge, place in a plastic container wrapped well with cling wrap and store in the refrigerator. Or layer leaves in damp paper towels inside a plastic bag for up to four days in the fridge. Or, place stalks in a glass of water and cover with a plastic bag secured to the glass and store in the fridge, changing water daily. Don’t wash the leaves until you are ready to use them.
One method of preserving is to freeze the leaves, either whole or chopped, although this will not suit recipes where the crisp leaves are essential. You don’t have to thaw before use. You can also put leaves in an icecube tray and cover with water or stock and freeze. Pop them out into a airtight bag, for use in soups, stews or sauces. Make basil and oil pastes, such as pesto, and freeze them. Use frozen basil within 4 months.
Basil can also be preserved by air-dried/dehydrated but not as successfully as freezing. The leaves may go dark. Gently wash the leaves, blot with paper towels and let dry completely. Layer coarse salt and basil leaves, ending with a layer of salt in an airtight container. Store in a cool dry place up to 6 months. In Italy, they also layer basil leaves in oil and use as required.
Basil Culinary Use
Basil probably originated in India, but today is cultivated over Asia, Africa, Central and Southern America, Mediterranean, France, Italy, Morocco and Egypt. Basil these days is less popular in Indian cuisines, but is indispensable in Italy, Vietnam and Thailand. In Italy, chopped basil leaves are strewn over cold or warm dishes before serving. It combines well with tomatoes, pickled olives, capers and garlic. The classic Pesto sauce for pasta is made from basil leaves.
In Thai cuisine, there are three main varieties of basil that are used, each with its own purpose. Bai Horapha tastes rather like anise, looks like sweet basil, and is used in red and green curries. Bai Manglaek (see Lemon Basil below) has lemony flavour, tiny leaves and is usually sprinkled over salads or used in soups. Bai Grapao (see Holy Basil) has a clove-like taste and purple-reddish tinged leaves. It doesn’t store well, so buy just before you intend to use it. Sweet basil can be used as a substitute for all varieties if you can’t find the Thai varieties.
In Indian, Thai and other S. E. Asian cuisines, basil seeds are used as a thickening agent, but the seeds don’t share the fragrance of the leaves.
Basil is a good source of folic acid, vitamin C, potassium, calcium and iron, but only if eaten by the cupful! Basil is said to repel flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches.
Basil supposedly derives its name from the terrifying basilisk, a half-lizard, half dragon creature with a piercing stare, according to Greek legend. The basil plant was considered to be a magical cure against the look, breath and bite of the basilisk when a basil leaf was medicinally applied. Basil is still considered a medicinal cure for venomous bites. Later Greeks and Romans believed the most potent basil could only be grown if one sowed the seed while ranting and swearing. This custom is mirrored in the French phrase “semer le baslic” (sewing basil) that means “to rant”.
In medieval times, building on Greek legend, it was thought that scorpions came from basil. To acquire a scorpion, on should place a few basil leaves under a flowerpot and, after a while, the pot should be lifted to expose a scorpion.
In Egypt, Basil has long been used as an embalming and preserving herb and has been found in the mummies of ancient Egypt. Basil was also a symbol of mourning in Greece and is also used there in certain religious rituals as a symbol of fertility, and in India, the head of a Hindu is bathed in Indian Basil (Tulasi) and a leaf of Tulasi is placed on the chest over the heart before burial. In India, basil is consecrated to the Hindu God Vishnu, whose wife Tulasi was said to have taken the form of basil when she came to earth. Hindus avoid harming tulasi and offer up prayers of forgiveness for touching a part of Tulasi. Most homes will have a Tulasi bush growing and it forms part of the daily worship routines.
To Ancient Romans, basil was a symbol of hatred, yet basil became a token of love in Italy. Young maidens would wear a sprig of basil in their hair to profess their availability. In some regions of Italy, basil is known as “Kiss-me-Nicholas”! In Romania, if a boy accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it means that they are engaged to be married. The French use basil as a flavouring ingredient in Chartreuse liqueur.
Other Uses of Basil
Basil is also widely used in perfumery, incense and holistic medicines such as ayurveda. It stimulates the appetite and helps curb flatulence. Basil tea is said to help dysentery, nausea and stomach distress due to gas. It is reported that basil leaves seeped in a cup of hot water for 3 – 5 minutes helps counter depression and stress.
Such a variety of Basils
There are many varieties of basil grown, but those that grow naturally in strong sun will have the best and most intense flavour and perfume. Basil varieties can be annual or perennial; most are annual. The perennial ones sometimes have a strong but less pleasant flavour. Basil varieties include Sacred Basil with an intense pungent smell, Liquorice Basil from Thailand, Cinnamon Basil, Globe Basil with flavour ranging from sweet to spicy, Genovese Basil used traditionally for pesto, Camphor Basil, Anise Basil, Mexican Spice Basil with a pleasant complex and warm flavour, Thai Lemon Basil with a balm like flavour, Lime Basil, another lemon Basil with a wonderful pure and fresh lemon aroma, New Guinea Basil, Sweet Thai Basil, African Blue Basil, Armenian Basil which is a purple and green basil, Greek Basil with large green leaves, Purple Basil, Holy Basil with a clover like taste, Bush Basil, Tree Basil and Wild Basil.
So different varieties manifest hints of lemon and lime, thyme, jasmine, clove, clover, cinnamon, camphor and anise. Because of this variety, care should be taken to choose the right basil for a recipe.
Some additional basil varieties include African Blue Basil (ornamental, vigorous, blue-ish green colour with a soft texture, light lavender flowers), Anise Basil (medium size leaf with light liquorice flavour), Cinnamon Basil (violet stems, veining and flowers, soft cinnamon flavour good with Middle Eastern and Asian style cooking and delicious in fruit salad dressings, makes great chutney), Genovese Basil (Full flavour, bright green leaf, white flowers), Green Ruffles Basil (lettuce leaf basil – large crinkley green leaf and white flowers), New Mexican Lemon Basil (Intense lemon flavour with bright green leaves and white flowers), Lime Basil (light lime flavour with white flower spikes that is great with fruit salad), Osmin Purple Basil (dark purple leaves and stems with pale lilac flowers and a sweet scent), Purple Raffles Basil (purple, large, ruffled leaves with a scent of cloves and liquorice, light pink flowers; makes a delicious beautiful cranberry-coloured flavoured vinegar!) Red Rubin Basil (coppery reddish purple leaves with a sweet scent), Spicy Globe Basil (white flowers), Thai (red stems and flowers in clusters, green leaf, licorice/anise basil aroma), Tibetan Basil (medium green soft leaf, pinkish flowers), Dark Opal Basil (purplish bronze leaves excellent for salads and vinegars).
A few Types of Basil
Bai Horapha(Thai Basil)
Bai Horapha or Thai Basil, a purple-stemmed and green leaved herb, smells rather like anise, tastes like liquorice, looks like sweet basil, and is used in red and green curries, soups and stirfries in Thailand. Its taste is mild and fascinating, somewhat comparable to tarragon, and it sweetens and perfumes any dish in which it is used. The flavour does not tolerate prolonged cooking, and so it is often sprinkled over Thai food immediately before serving. It is very good in hot and sour dishes such as hot and sour soups, or curries.
This basil has leaves more like marjoram which don’t need to be chopped. The flavour is intense, and is great with grilled peppers.
There are two types of Thai Holy Basil – red and bluish-white. Both taste sharp and hot – when very hot can actually numb the tongue. The leaves of both are pointed and slightly variegated and with a fragrance redolent of cloves. Both types are used in stir fries, especially hot and spicy ones. (Thanks to David Thompson, Thai Food).
Red Holy Basil has narrow, slightly hairy leaves with a reddish-purple, and a pungent peppery and clove-like, or allspice-like taste. It doesn’t store well, so buy just before you intend to use it. Its taste is much stronger than Asian Sweet Basil, and than the white variety of Holy Basil, and is often cooked in stirfries to release the flavour. Great for a flavoured tea.
Krapao has a blue-ish tinge, and its flavour is musky and contains a hint of mint. It has green stalks and a less intense flavour.
Indian Holy Basil | Tulsi
- Read more about Indian Tulasi (Indian Holy Basil) here.
A fragrant, lemon-scented and lemon or lime flavoured herb (a sticky citrus fragrance), with small, light green leaves, added at the last minute or as a garnish (as is usual with all basil, to keep its flavour) or in wet dishes. It is popular in Balinese and Thai cooking for fish dishes. David Thompson of Thai Food says to keep it covered, but don’t store in water. Use any other basil as an alternative, although its flavour will be different.
- Lemon basil seeds (luk manglaek)- small and black and look like poppy seeds – when soaked in water, develop a slippery mucilaginous coating. This frog spawn-like substance is used to garnish iced syrups and in icecreams.
Purple basil has intense flavour and beautiful colour, and is wonderful in salads and with grilled vegetables.
Sweet Basil is an annual herbaceous plant with shiny green leaves tinged with purple and a smell with a hint of cinnamon and cloves. The fresh leaves are eaten raw or used as a flavouring cooked at the last moment or used as a garnish.