Basil, or Ocimum basilicum, as it is officially known, is nothing short of pure alchemy. How else can you describe its uncanny ability to harness the summer sun and deliver it directly to your tastebuds? Highly aromatic but mild in flavor with a hint of anise and mint, it brightens anything it touches, be it a simple tomato and mozzarella salad or a rich and spicy thai curry sauce.
A member of the mint family, basil is most often associated with Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines, but it is believed to have originated in India some 4,000 years ago. The tender-leafed plant with the intoxicating aroma has long been associated with royalty. Its name is derived from the ancient Greek basileus, meaning “king”, and like so many herbs, it is steeped in the lore or of both power and love. It was believed to have been the only cure against the paralyzing stare of the basilisk, a mythical serpent whose gaze could leave its prey frozen with fear, and old Italian tales speak of woman planting basil in their window sills to attract male suitors.
While much of what is sold in supermarkets is grown in hot houses, basil is at its absolute best from summer to early autumn, when it can be harvested from the ground. Fortunately, it is one of the easiest plants to grow at home in a container and the perfect starting point for anyone curious about growing their own food.
There are over 50 different varieties of basil, and we encourage you to seek out as many as you can. (Your local farmers market or garden shop are good starting points for more exotic varieties). In general, they fall into one of two groups, basil of cooler climates like Europe and North America is sweeter, while in warmer regions like Egypt and Southeast Asia, it has a more peppery bite with hints of clove. Here are some of the more popular varieties.
This is probably the granddaddy of all varieties. Its smooth, lush green leaves are tender and aromatic and average in size between 2 and 4 inches (5–10 cm). As the name implies, it is sweet, mild and has a definite anise-like flavor. There are several cultivars. Genovese is the most popular and the variety most used in pesto. It is protected throughout the European Union under the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC).
The small spear tip leaf and the purplish-brown blossoms and stems are distinctive characteristics of this variety. Sometimes called Vietnamese basil, there are several cultivars including Thai or Siam Queen. It has a strong herb flavor and a spicy edge that is too intense to be eaten raw, but adds incredible dimension to soups, curries, sauces and stir fries.
The deep opal hue of this variety adds incredible color in salads or as a garnish. Its flavor that lies somewhere between sweet and Thai basil; slightly minty and peppery. The leaves are often jagged, and it is more at home in Southeast Asian cuisines than in Mediterranean.
This variety has a distinct cinnamon fragrance. It’s jagged leaves are smaller than those of sweet basil and are often tinged with purple. The stems and flowers are also purple. A good choice for Southeast Asian dishes. (Photo Credit: Specialty Produce.)
This variety has small oval-spaced leaves that are similar in shape to oregano. These plants grow in compact bushes that are perfect for container gardening. Greek basil has a flavor profile similar to sweet basil and goes particularly well in tomato dishes and salads. (Photo Credit: Richters Herbs)
LETTUCE LEAF BASIL
Aptly named, the ruffled leaves of this variety are as large as a hand and resemble loose-leaf lettuce. A cultivar of sweet basil, it is similar in fragrance and flavor, although slightly milder, and can be used in all the same preparations. (Photo Credit: Park Seeds)
Another of the Thai-related basils. This one has an oblong leaf similar to other Thai varieties. It has a lemony-pepper flavor with a rich citrus-like aroma. The seeds are often soaked and used in coconut milk-based desserts and beverages.
BUYING & STORING
At the farmers market, you will find loosely bundled bouquets of seasonal basil that has been grown, but most basil sold in the supermarket is raised in a hot house. When selecting basil, smell it first. Fragrance is a good indicator of freshness, as it fades with age. Seasonal basil will be wildly fragrant; less so for hot house products. Look for fresh, vibrantly colored leaves. Avoid if any are wilted or have dark spots.
This herb is quite perishable and will blacken if it gets too cold. Store it as you would freshly cut flowers. Clip the very ends of the stems, trim away the lowest leaves, and stand the basil up in a glass or jar filled with about ½ to 1 inch (about 2 cm) of water. Store at room temperature. It should last several days, quite possibly longer depending on how fresh it was when purchased. Alternatively, you can place basil in a damp paper towel, place it inside a plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator on one of the higher shelves without sealing the bag. Don’t allow anything to set on or crush the bag. Sweet basil will last 2-3 days this way. Hardier Asian varieties will keep a few days longer.
You can dry basil for long-term storage. It will lose its sweetness, but retain its herby notes. Fresh is always preferable, but dry basil is fine for long-cooking sauces. Another option is to puree the leaves with water and a touch of olive oil and freeze the mixture in ice cube trays for up to 3 months. Simply add the cubes to soups, stews and sauces as needed.
PREPARING & COOKING
Fresh basil is delicious and has a wide range of uses. Finish your marinara or other tomato-based sauces with a little to give them brighter flavor. It is an essential ingredient in a Caprese salad and gives Thai and other Southeast Asian dishes their exotic edge. You can also use in desserts like lime basil sorbet. And don’t forget that mother of all basil preparations, pesto.
When cooking hot dishes, add the basil at the end. Over heating destroys the fragrance and much of the subtle delicacies. Never mince basil. Cutting it tends to cause the leaves to bruise and blacken. For this reason, many Italian cooks prefer to simply tear by hand. Cut no smaller than a thin chiffinade (ribbon) using a sharp, stainless steel knife. (Carbon knives have a greater tendency to discolor.)
There is, perhaps, no greater culinary duo than tomatoes and fresh sweet basil. Add some garlic and olive oil, and you have the fab four of Italian cuisine. But it also pairs nicely with eggs and cheese, especially mozzarella, parmesan and ricotta. And while it plays well with mint, cilantro and parsley, it clashes with tarragon. Thai basil works well with its Asian brethren, coconut milk, ginger, and lemongrass.