Basil is an herb in the mint family that is essential in Italian cooking, although it is also used in a variety of other types of cuisines including Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese. It is known for being the main ingredient in traditional pesto and is also a favorite seasoning in tomato-based pasta sauces. Basil is an annual herb that is most often green in color. It has a fragrant, sweet smell and peppery taste. Basil leaves are large, somewhat delicate, and have a smooth texture marked with a series of veins; they are the prime part of the plant used in cooking. It's an easy herb to grow at home and a common addition to kitchen gardens.
Varieties of Basil
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, and there are several types of sweet basil available. Thai basil is also called for in many recipes because of its anise-like flavor. It is distinguishable from sweet basil by its purple stems and sturdy leaves. Other varieties are named for the way they smell or taste, such as lemon basil, cinnamon basil, and spicy bush basil.
Fresh vs. Dried
Basil is sold fresh and dried but fresh basil is typically preferred for cooking. Although dried is more concentrated than fresh, dried basil does not have the same taste; the dehydrating process draws out more of the mint flavor and less of the anise. The general rule is to use one-third the amount of dried basil when substituting it for fresh. For example, one tablespoon of fresh chopped basil equals 1 teaspoon dried.
What Does It Taste Like?
The taste of basil will depend on the variety. Sweet basil has a fresh aroma with a subtle peppery flavor and a hint of mint. Other varieties taste of citrus and spice. Thai basil is more savory with a spicy licorice flavor.
Cooking With Basil
Before using, basil should be rinsed under running water and patted dry. The leaves are most often removed from the stem and either torn, cut into chiffonade, or finely chopped. They can also be used whole and added as a pizza topping or garnish. Thicker stems and stalks should be discarded because they tend to be bitter, but it is okay to include the small stems in dishes. However, the stems and large veins contain compounds that will cause pesto to turn brown and dark, so it is best to remove them when making the herb sauce.
For the most intense flavor, fresh basil should be added at the end of the cooking process. Prolonged heat will cause basil's volatile oils to dissipate. If using dried basil, it needs to be included at the start of a recipe so the herb has time to soften and infuse with the other ingredients.
Recipes With Basil
Basil is often paired with tomatoes as it helps to mellow out some of the acidity. In addition to pesto, basil is used in a variety of dishes, from appetizers to desserts.
Where to Buy Basil
Fresh basil is readily available in most supermarkets and can be found in the produce section packed in plastic clamshell containers or sold as full plants. When buying fresh basil, look for bright green leaves that are not browning or dried on the edges. Dried basil is sold in jars and found in the spice aisle.
It is easy to grow your own basil, whether in the garden or a pot on the windowsill. Pinching back the flowers will encourage more leaf growth and produce large plants by the end of the season.
How to store fresh basil depends on what form you have purchased. Fresh basil leaves should be kept in the refrigerator layered in damp paper towels and stored in a plastic bag where they will last up to four days. Basil with the stems can be placed upright in a jar of water, with the leaves covered by a plastic bag (secured to the top of the jar). In the refrigerator, they will last up to a week; make sure to change the water daily. Leave a plant in a sunny spot and water regularly to keep the soil moist.
Basil is also a perfect herb to freeze for later use. Whole leaves can be washed or blanched and then flash-frozen and stored in a zip-top bag in the freezer. When using frozen basil leaves, add more than the recipe calls for as some of the flavor will have diminished. Alternatively, the basil leaves can be chopped, drizzled with olive oil, and spooned into an ice cube tray and frozen. The cubes are best added to soups and stews.
Dried basil should be kept in the cool, dry place and used within six months. Keep in mind that the jar could have been on the grocery store shelf for quite some time, so it is best to use as quickly as possible.