Basil is one of the most popular herbs worldwide and has been used for centuries in cooking, medicine, and even religious ceremonies. This aromatic herb has a distinct flavor that can enhance the taste of many dishes, from pasta sauces to soups and salads. But did you know that basil also has numerous health benefits, from reducing stress to improving digestion?
We will dive into everything you need to know about basil, including its history, different varieties, health benefits, and even how it compares to other popular seeds like chia. So, please grab a cup of tea and let’s explore basil together.
What is Basil?
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual herb belonging to the mint family. It has a sweet, earthy aroma and is commonly used in culinary and medicinal practices.
Where Did Basil Originate?
Basil is believed to be native to tropical regions of central Africa and Southeast Asia but has been widely used worldwide. It has been cultivated in many different cultures for thousands of years. The plant is believed to have originated specifically in India, where it was first used for medicinal purposes and religious rituals.
The herb has played an important role in many cultures throughout history. In ancient Egypt, basil was used in the embalming process and was believed to have healing powers. Basil was associated with hatred in Ancient Greece but is now a symbol of fertility in some religious rituals and is believed to bring good luck and wealth. In Hindu culture, holy basil is considered a sacred herb.
Basil spread to other parts of the world due to the spice trade from India. It was introduced to the Mediterranean, where they used it in their cooking and as a medicinal herb. Basil became particularly popular in Italy, where it became a key ingredient in traditional Italian cuisine.
Basil was also introduced to the Americas by European settlers. Today, basil is grown worldwide, with major exporters including India, Egypt and Thailand.
What Does Basil Taste Like?
Basil has a strong, distinct and aromatic flavor profile that can be described as sweet and peppery, with a slight hint of clove, mint and anise. The flavor is bright, fresh, and herbaceous.
The basil leaves are rich in essential oils, giving them a distinctive aroma and flavor. It is noticeable when the leaves are bruised, rubbed or crushed, which helps to release the natural oils. This oil can be described as sweet and slightly floral.
The taste of basil can vary slightly depending on the specific type of basil. For example, sweet basil has a milder flavor than Thai basil, which has a more pronounced licorice flavor. However, all types of basil share a similar flavor profile that is both distinctive and versatile.
When fresh basil is added to dishes, it provides a bright, refreshing flavor that can help cut the acidity and enhance sweetness. For this reason it is often used as a finishing herb in tomato-based pasta sauces, pizzas, and salads.
What Does Basil Look Like?
The Stem: Basil is easily recognizable by its distinct appearance. The herb has a tall, slender stem and usually grows to a height of about 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) tall. The stem is green and hairy but depending on the basil type can be tinged with a purple hue. The stem branches out and is covered with solid, green leaves arranged in pairs along the length of the stem.
The Leaves: The leaves have a pointed, oval-shape and range in size from about 2” to 4” long, depending on the variety. They have a soft texture and smooth, slightly glossy/waxy appearance. The color is typically bright green, although some varieties may have hints of purple or red. Along the veins they can appear to be bumpy.
The Flowers: As the plant grows it will develop clusters at the top of the stem, of small, delicate flowers in shades of white to pink to purple (depending on the variety) that bloom during summer, towards the end of the growing season. They can add a stunning ornamental touch to gardens and floral arrangements.
How to Pick Basil Leaves
- There may be times when you only need a few leaves rather than entire stems of basil. Picking basil leaves may seem like a simple task, but there are some techniques to ensure that you harvest the freshest and most flavorful leaves possible.
- Firstly, it’s important to select the right leaves. When selecting fresh basil leaves, look for a bright green color free of yellow or brown spots. The leaves should be firm and not wilted or limp.
- When harvesting basil from a plant, pick the leaves in the morning after the dew has dried before the day’s heat sets in. This will ensure that the leaves are at their freshest and most flavorful.
- It’s important to use a gentle touch when picking basil leaves. If you’re using your fingers, pinch each leaf at its base where it connects to the stem, starting at the top of the plant. If you’re using scissors, snip the stem just below the leaves. Avoid pulling or tearing the leaves, damaging the plant, and affecting future growth.
- When picking basil leaves, it’s important to leave a few sets of leaves on the plant to allow it to continue growing and avoid picking from the bottom of the plant. This will ensure a steady supply of fresh basil throughout the growing season.
- If your basil plant is becoming too large or bushy, it’s okay to prune it back. Pruning can encourage new growth and a more robust plant. Remember to start from the top; this will enable the plant to grow new branches and leaves.
How Do You Store Fresh Basil?
Properly storing fresh basil is essential for preserving its flavor and texture. Basil is a delicate herb that can wilt and turn black or brown quickly if not stored correctly. The following are some steps that can help you store fresh basil.
PRO TIP: The success of storing fresh basil begins with the timing of picking it from the plant. The best time to harvest basil is in the morning, just after the dew has dried. The basil leaves are at their freshest and will retain their flavor longer.
How to Store Fresh Basil
- 1 bunch fresh basil
- Trim the stems: Starting at the top of the plant, trim the stems at a 45-degree angle.
- Clean the basil: Rinse the basil leaves gently under cold water to remove dirt or debris. Be careful not to bruise or damage the leaves, as this can cause them to wilt more quickly.
- Store the basil: There are several ways to store fresh basil. Refrigeration can actually cause the leaves to go black so I recommend the room temperature or freezer method. Choose the method that works best for you based on how long you plan to keep the basil.
Room Temperature Storage:
- Place the basil stems in a glass or jar filled with about an inch of water, making sure no leaves are submerged in the water.
- Cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag, allowing air to circulate.
- Store at room temperature and change the water every one to two days.
- You can also freeze fresh basil to extend its shelf life. Blanch the basil leaves in boiling water for only 10 seconds, then immediately transfer them to a bowl of ice water to stop them from cooking further.
- Pat the leaves dry, then transfer them to a freezer-safe container or bag.
- Be sure to label and date the container before storing in the freezer. Use it within 3-4 months. You can add the frozen basil directly to soups, sauces, etc.
Fresh basil is best used within a few days of picking. The longer it sits, the more the flavor will diminish. Following these steps for proper storage should help extend the shelf life of your fresh basil so that you can enjoy its delicious flavor and aroma for as long as possible.
There are many different types of basil, each with its own distinct flavor and appearance. Here are some of the most common types of basil:
1. Sweet Basil
Sweet basil is the most common type of basil you will see in the supermarkets and the kind that is used in Italian cuisine (the Genovese variety). It has large, bright green leaves with a sweet, slightly peppery flavor. Common uses include pesto, tomato sauce, and Caprese salad dishes. It can also be used in teas and infused oils.
Sweet basil grows well in warm climates and requires full morning sun and well-drained soil. It is easy to grow from seed or can be purchased as a seedling at a nursery or garden center.
2. Thai Basil
Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) is a basil native to Southeast Asia, hence the name. Its distinct flavor profile has a sweet, licorice and anise-like taste. Its leaves are a bit smaller than sweet basil and are serrated with purple stems.
Like sweet basil, it is also added fresh to recipes. It’s commonly used in Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian cuisine, where it’s added to soups, stir-fries, and curries. Thai basil is also used to make the famous Vietnamese noodle soup dish called pho. Although it’s a popular herb in Asian countries, it is easy to grow in most climates, making it a great addition to any herb garden.
3. Lemon Basil
Lemon basil has a distinct lemony scent and flavor that make it a popular choice for fish, herbal teas and desserts. It has green leaves that are slightly more narrow than the common type.
This type of basil is usually grown in the tropical regions of Asia and Africa but can grow in other parts of the world indoors or during the warmer seasons. Its oils contain citral and limonene, which are compounds that give lemon basil its flavor but also have anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. Lemon basil can also be a good source of vitamins A, C and K.
4. Lime Basil
Lime basil also has a unique, citrus flavor and aroma that is similar to lemon basil though it is less common. This also makes it an excellent addition to drinks, salads, and desserts. Lime basil is often used in Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine, fresh or steamed as well as cooked into dishes.
5. Purple Basil
Also known as dark opal basil, it is a variety of sweet basil with dark purple leaves. It is primarily grown as an ornamental plant but also used in food preparation and medicine. The leaves of purple basil have a slightly spicy flavor similar to sweet basil but with a more pronounced clove-like taste.
In addition to its unique flavor, the anthocyanins that give the leaves their purple color also have antioxidant properties that may have health benefits. Purple basil isn’t recommended for cooking due to an unappealing color change, but its striking color when fresh makes it a popular garnish for salads, pesto and infused oils.
6. Holy Basil
Also known as Tulsi, holy basil is a sacred plant in Hinduism and is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has a strong aroma with notes of mint, citrus and licorice. In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil is used to help treat various ailments such as stress, respiratory and stomach disorders, as well as fever.
Holy basil is used in traditional Thai cuisine, where it is known as Krapow and is a key ingredient in dishes such as Pad Krapow Gai (Thai Basil Chicken).
7. Cinnamon Basil
Cinnamon basil, also known as Mexican spice basil, has a sweet and spicy flavor with notes of cinnamon due to containing methyl cinnamate. The plant can grow up to 30” tall and 24” wide and produces small dark purple flowers.
Cinnamon basil is a popular ingredient in herbal teas and adds a unique flavor to baked goods. It can be added to both sweet and savory dishes and is commonly used in Asian cuisine. This type of basil is also known for its medicinal properties and is often used as a natural remedy for inflammatory and digestive issues.
Substitutes for Basil
Although basil is an incredibly popular herb, sometimes you can’t get your hands on it when you need it in a pinch. Fortunately, there are some substitutes you can use to mimic the flavor profile of basil in your cooking. Here are some of the most common substitutes for basil:
1. Dried Basil
Keeping dried basil on hand is an easy and common way to substitute for fresh basil in many recipes. However, if you are in need of a fresh herb substitute, you will want to look at one of the alternative options below.
Substitute Ratio: 1:3 The general rule of thumb is to use one-third of dried basil as you would fresh basil. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh basil, you would use 1 teaspoon of dried basil.
1 tablespoon fresh basil = 1 teaspoon dried basil
This ratio works when substituting most dried herbs for fresh.
Oregano is a popular herb frequently used as a substitute for basil in many dishes. Its flavor profile is similar to basil, but it has a more pungent and earthy taste, with hints of clove, mint and pine.
Uses: Oregano pairs well with tomato-based dishes, meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables. It is also used in marinades, dressings, and sauces.
Substitute Ratio: When substituting oregano for basil, use a 1:1 ratio or a little less, as it has a stronger flavor.
Marjoram, which is a common substitute for oregano because of its similar flavor, makes it a good substitute for basil as well. It has a slightly sweeter and milder flavor compared to oregano.
Uses: It is commonly used in Italian, French, and Greek cuisines and can also be used to season sauces, marinades, vegetables and tomato-based dishes.
Substitute Ratio: When substituting basil with marjoram, use a 1:1 ratio for both fresh and dried.
Thyme is a fragrant herb with small leaves. It has a unique, mild flavor that is often described as earthy, slightly sweet, and somewhat minty and blends well with other herbs. One thing to consider is some types of basil (such as Thai basil) have more of a licorice taste which may not come through with the thyme.
Uses: Thyme is commonly used in French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is used to flavor soups, stews, fish and meats like lamb and chicken.
Substitute Ratio: 2:1 when swapping fresh thyme for fresh basil (so 2 tablespoons fresh thyme for every tablespoon of fresh basil) and 1:1 for dried because drying basil tones the flavor down.
Sage has a similar but stronger earthy flavor to basil with a hint of mint and citrus. It can be substituted for basil in some dishes.
Uses: It is particularly good in heavy and rich, meat-based dishes because of its bold flavor. It is also used in stuffing, sauces, brown butter, breads and even cocktails.
Substitute Ratio: 1:1 Instead of adding fresh sage towards the end of cooking like you would basil, add it earlier to help cook out and mellow its stronger flavor.
Parsley has a mild, slightly bitter, clean flavor that complements many savory dishes. The herb has flat or curly leaves, depending on the variety.
Uses: It is widely used as a garnish but can be a good replacement for basil in Italian and tomato-based dishes.
Substitute Ratio: 1:1 or more to taste. While parsley has a distinct flavor, it is less intense than basil, making it a good substitute for those who find basil overpowering.
Cilantro, also known as coriander, has a distinct flavor that is often described as citrusy, earthy, and slightly spicy. It has a unique taste that can add depth and complexity to various dishes. However, it’s worth noting that cilantro has a polarizing taste, and some people may find its flavor soapy or unpleasant.
Uses: Cilantro is a popular herb in Mexican, Thai, and Indian cuisines. It can be used as a substitute for Thai basil in dishes that require a fresh, herbaceous flavor.
Substitute Ratio: 1:1 fresh
Mint is an herb commonly used in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisines that comes from the same plant family as basil. It is a great substitute for basil because it has a similar freshness, color and sweet taste but keep in mind that it does have an aftertaste that basil doesn’t.
Uses: Mint leaves are used in salads, cocktails, teas, and desserts, and they pair well with lamb, yogurt, and lemon. Mint can be easily grown at home and is a versatile and tasty alternative to basil in some salads, desserts, drinks and sauces.
Substitute Ratio: 1:2 or to taste. Start by using half of the amount of fresh mint in place of fresh basil and go from there.
Health Benefits of Basil
Not only is basil a versatile and delicious herb in cooking, but it also offers a wide range of health benefits. From reducing stress and anxiety to improving digestion and heart health, basil is a valuable addition to any diet. Here are some of the many health benefits of basil:
1. Anti-inflammatory Properties
Basil contains essential oils such as eugenol, citral (in Lemon Basil), and linalool, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Eugenol, for example, has been found to inhibit the production of certain inflammatory mediators. This can help make it effective in reducing inflammation and pain in the body, which is a natural response of the immune system to infection or injury and is associated with health conditions like arthritis and heart disease.
2. Antioxidant Properties
Basil is rich in antioxidants such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acids. The antioxidant properties of basil can help protect against the damage caused by free radicals. Preclinical studies have demonstrated that the phytochemicals in Holy basil in particular may potentially help reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as liver, lung, and skin cancer.
3. Digestive Health
Basil can help improve digestive health by reducing inflammation, balancing pH levels and promoting the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Basil also has carminative properties, which can help ease indigestion, cramps and other digestive issues. Carminative herbs can help reduce gas and bloating in the digestive tract.
4. Respiratory Health
Holy basil has been known to be used as a natural expectorant. Expectorants are substances that help loosen mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up and expel it. It should be avoided if pregnant, trying to get pregnant, have diabetes or hypothyroidism.
5. Stress Reduction
Basil has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote mental clarity and reduce stress. This is done by reducing the production of stress hormones when elevated, such as cortisol.
Basil Seeds vs. Chia Seeds
Basil and chia seeds are often compared because they look similar and have similar uses and health benefits.
Basil seeds are small, black seeds that come from the basil plant. They look similar to chia seeds, which is why they are often confused for one another.
They are commonly used in South Asian beverages such as falooda. Basil seeds are a good source of fiber and are rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium. They have a mild, nutty flavor and are used in some dishes as a thickener. When soaked in water, the preferred way to eat them, basil seeds swell up and form a gel-like substance. They aren’t typically eaten dry since they can be hard to chew.
Chia seeds are small, black or white seeds from the chia plant with a subtle taste. They are a popular ingredient often used in smoothies, chia pudding, oatmeal, and other healthy recipes. Chia seeds are a good source of fiber and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health.
When soaked in water, chia seeds also absorb a lot of water, but they take longer to swell up and don’t form as much gel as basil seeds. They can be eaten dry or soaked.
Differences Between Basil Seeds and Chia Seeds
•Water Absorption: One of the key differences between basil seeds and chia seeds is their ability to absorb water. Basil seeds absorb water more quickly and become larger than chia seeds but both form a gel-like substance. This property makes them a popular ingredient in drinks and desserts.
•Nutritional Content: While basil seeds and chia seeds are good sources of fiber and nutrients, they have slightly different nutritional profiles. Chia seeds are a better source of omega-3 fatty acids. Basil seeds, on the other hand, contain more fiber and calcium and are slightly lower in fat.
•Culinary Use: Both seeds can be used in similar recipes such as smoothies and baked goods. Basil seeds are commonly used in Southeast Asian and Indian drinks such as falooda and are usually only used in soaked preparations, while chia seeds can be eaten dry or soaked and are often used in smoothies, oatmeal, salads and cereals.
•Flavor: Both basil seeds and chia seeds have a mild, nutty flavor, but some people find that basil seeds have a slightly stronger flavor than chia seeds, which are described as being bland.
•Appearance: While basil seeds and chia seeds look similar, they have some subtle differences in appearance. Basil seeds are black and a bit larger and rounder in shape than chia seeds. On the other hand, Chia seeds are slightly more oval, with a mottled appearance and can be both black and white.
Basil Temperature Tolerance
Basil is a warm-weather herb that thrives in hot temperatures and can withstand heat a little better than other herbs, such as sage and oregano. However, the herb is sensitive to extreme temperatures and frost, which can cause damage and even death to the plant.
Basil grows best in temperatures between 80°F to 90°F (27°C to 32°C). When the temperature drops below 50°F (10°C), the plant may suffer from cold damage and stunted growth.
On the other hand, when the temperature exceeds 95°F (35°C), the plant may wilt and become stressed. The high heat may even affect the flavor negatively.
To ensure the proper growth and development of basil, it is essential to maintain an optimal temperature range:
Hot climate: If you live in an area with hot summers, growing basil in partial shade or in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade is advisable. Also be sure to keep the plant hydrated. This will protect the plant from scorching heat and prevent it from wilting.
Cool climate: If you live in a cooler climate, you can grow basil indoors in a sunny window or a greenhouse to maintain a warmer temperature. On cool nights, the plant can be protected by covering it with a sheet or bringing it indoors.
Are Basil Flowers Edible?
Basil produces small white, purple or pink flowers usually in late summer. While the flowers may look attractive, many gardeners wonder if they are edible. The answer is yes. Basil flowers are edible and can be used in cooking to brighten up and beautify dishes.
The flowers have a milder flavor than the leaves and will have slight differences depending on the cultivar. They can be used dried or fresh as a garnish for a pop of color or added to salads, soups, sauces, drinks and desserts.
However, it is important to note that once the basil plant starts to flower, the leaves may lose some flavor and turn bitter. To prevent this, you can pinch off the flower buds as soon as they appear. This will encourage the plant to focus its energy on producing new leaves. Additionally, removing the flowers will help extend the plant’s productivity and prevent it from going to seed.
How to Use Basil
- make flavored oils, syrups and vinegars by infusing them with fresh basil
- grow basil sprouts
- brew herbal basil tea or make essential oil to enjoy some of its health benefits
- freeze fresh basil into ice cubes for beverages
- blend the fresh leaves into banana ice cream
- use fresh and dried basil in food and drink like cocktails, sauces, pasta, pesto, gnocchi, on pizza and salads, etc.
Here are some of our favorite fresh basil recipes:
Basil Nutrition Information
According to Healthline, every 1 tablespoon of fresh, sweet basil contains the following nutrients:
- 0.6 calories
- 3% of the RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) of Vitamin A
- 13% of the RDI of Vitamin K
- 0.5% of the RDI of Calcium
- 0.5% of the RDI of Iron
- 1.5% of the RDI of Manganese
Basil is a versatile herb used in various dishes with many health benefits. From its origins in India to its use in Mediterranean cuisine, basil has a rich history and diverse varieties.
Whether you are a beginner gardener or an experienced cook, understanding the basics of basil can help you grow and use this herb to its fullest potential. By choosing the right variety, storing it correctly, and using it creatively, you can enjoy basil’s unique flavor and health benefits all year round.
So, go ahead and experiment with this flavorful herb in your cooking, and see how it can elevate your dishes to new heights!
Do you feel like a basil expert now? I hope that this article encourages readers to find inspiration to incorporate basil into their diets and/or start growing this amazing herb at home.
Photo Credit: depositphotos.com