Basil Cooking Tips

Fresh basil is best known for pesto and pistou

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Basil is an essential herb in Italian food, though it also adds a kick of flavor to a variety of dishes. The fragrant, sweet smell and peppery taste is key to making a great pesto as well as tomato-based pasta sauces. It's also featured in other Mediterranean cuisines and Thai and Vietnamese foods. Whether you're making a sauce, salad, soup, or entrée, it's always good to have basil in the kitchen and know how to cook with it.

What Is Basil?

Basil is an annual herb that is most often green in color. There are over 60 varieties of basil, some of which are red or purple, and each has its own distinct flavor. Sweet basil is the most popular and common variety. Thai basil is also called for in many recipes because of its anise-like flavor. It's an easy herb to grow at home and a common addition to kitchen gardens.

Using Basil

The leaves are the prime part of the plant used in cooking. Basil leaves are large and have a smooth texture marked with a series of veins. It is okay to include the small stems in dishes. Thicker stems and stalks should be discarded because they tend to be bitter. The stems and large veins also contain compounds that will cause pesto to turn brown and dark.

If you grow basil, pinching back the flowers will encourage more leaf growth and produce large plants by the end of the season. However, the white flowers are edible.

Fresh basil is typically preferred for cooking. It can be preserved by freezing or drying the leaves; of the two, freezing is the best choice. You will never get full flavor when using dried basil, so keep this in mind when using dried basil as a substitute. The general rule is to use one-third the amount of dried basil when substituting it for fresh basil:

  • One tablespoon of fresh chopped basil equals 1 teaspoon dried.
  • When substituting fresh basil for dried, triple the amount.
  • One-half ounce of fresh basil leaves equals 1 cup chopped fresh basil.

Basil is a perfect candidate as a flavor for infused oil, too. It does not work as well for long-term oils, so use it within a couple of weeks or remove the basil. You can also make basil flower oil or use the flowers to make tea.

Flavor Pairings

Basil offers a very versatile flavor pairing, which is why it's so popular in foods. It is the ultimate complement to tomatoes and also pairs beautifully with onions, garlic, and olives. Most other herbs tend to overpower basil's flavor and aroma, but oregano is one that is most often used in conjunction with basil. Other good combinations include summer savory, rosemary, and sage. It's advised to avoid using basil and tarragon in the same dish.

This herb goes well with most types of meats, including chicken, lamb, and pork. It's excellent in seafood and fish dishes as well. You'll also find that it pairs well with a variety of summer produce such as eggplant and zucchini.

Cooking Tips

Basil should be rinsed under running water and patted dry before using. The leaves are removed from the stem and, most often, finely chopped. For the most intense flavor, basil should be added at the end of the cooking process. Prolonged heat will cause basil's volatile oils to dissipate.

Ground with garlic and olive oil into a paste, basil is a prime ingredient in pistou, a specialty sauce of the Mediterranian. In Italy, pine nuts and sometimes grated hard cheese are added to the paste to become pesto. Both pistou and pesto come from verb roots meaning to pulverize, as with a pestle. Younger leaves are preferable for pesto. Pesto may easily be frozen, but if you plan to do so, leave out the cheese.

Pesto is most often served with pasta. Enzymatic reactions between basil and flour may cause an unappetizing brown color to the pasta. When serving pesto with pasta, add a squeeze of lemon juice to the pasta cooking water to help keep the pasta from turning dark.