Cooking with Fresh Basil
If asked to choose just one fresh herb to cook with the rest of your life….maybe you pick basil? It’s a contender for sure – most people absolutely love it, and it feels like the mere smell of basil channels summer (maybe even summer in Tuscany…or Provence?)
What Is Basil?
Basil is an herb in the mint family that is essential in Italian and Mediterranean cooking. It’s popular as the main ingredient in traditional pesto and is also a favorite seasoning in tomato-based pasta sauces. But other types of cuisines use basil too, including Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese.
There are over 60 varieties of basil, each with its distinct flavor. The most popular and commonly used is Sweet basil but Thai basil is also used in many Asian recipes, distinctive for its pronounced anise-like flavor.
What Does Basil Look Like?
Sweet basil is distinguishable for its large, bright, and glossy green leaves. The leaves are somewhat delicate, and have a smooth texture marked with a series of veins. But since there are so many varieties of basil, there are also a lot of variations on the look of the herb. Dark Opal basil is a deep purple, Greek basil has tiny green leaves, Lemon basil has longer and thinner leaves, and Cinnamon basil has bright purple stems and flowers.
The leaves in a bottle or package of dried basil are crushed, and a muted green.
What Does Basil Taste Like?
Sweet basil has a fragrant, sweet smell and peppery taste with a hint of mint. Larger leaves have a more pronounced flavor and a slight spiciness. The taste and potency of basil will depend on the variety. Other varieties may have undertones of citrus or other spices. Thai basil is more savory, with a spicy licorice flavor.
Substituting Dried Basil for Fresh Basil
Dried basil can be substituted for fresh in some recipes, especially any recipes that are cooked. But note that dried basil does not quite have the same taste as fresh; the dehydrating process can enhance the level of mintiness.
Use 1 teaspoon of dried basil for 1 tablespoon fresh, so a 1:3 ratio of dried to fresh basil. For recipes and dishes that call for fresh basil that not are cooked, sometimes it’s ok to sub in dried, sometimes not. The best rule of thumb is just to think about how the herb is being featured in the food. If it’s blended into a marinade, for instance, dried is probably fine, but if you are sprinkling it over a caprese salad then pick another fresh herb if you don’t have fresh basil, or possibly just skip it.
Substituting Other Herbs for Basil
Fresh basil has a very distinct flavor and substituting other herbs will change the flavor profile. However, there are other herbs that can be used that will often work in dishes that call for with basil.
When needing to substitute for dried basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, and savory may work in your recipe. Spinach leaves or celery leaf can be used in place of basil in some fresh dishes like pesto, and caprese salad. Italian herb seasoning (a mix of dried parsley, thyme, oregano, rosemary) can be subbed in for dried basil in sauces. Oregano and thyme are also popular in Mediterranean cooking so are often compatible in dishes that feature basil, both fresh or dried.
Where To Find Basil
Fresh basil can be found in the fresh produce section of supermarkets, particularly in the spring and summer months. In the summertime, you can find big bunches of fresh basil as they are easy to grow and abundant in warm months. Farmers markets are a great place to get lots of basil inexpensively during peak season. And it grows easily in a pot or garden, so think about buying a little pot, and keeping it going!
Dried basil is found in the baking aisle with the other dried herbs and spices.
How to Choose Fresh Basil
Fresh basil may be sold in bunches (particularly at farmers’ markets) or in small plastic containers. See below for how to store it once you bring it home. Avoid bunches with browned leaves or leaves that look shriveled, dried or damp.
How To Prepare and Cook with Basil
Just before using, basil should be rinsed under water and patted dry. The leaves are most often removed from the stem and then used whole, torn, cut into chiffonade (thin strips), finely chopped or pureed. Used whole, they are perfect as a pizza topping or layered into a caprese salad. Chopped or sliced, basil is often added into dishes like pastas, sauces, salads, and vegetables and Southeast Asian stir fries of all kinds. Its sweet flavoring also may appear in sweets like ice creams, fruit soups and gazpachos, and beverages.
When cooking with basil, it’s best to add fresh basil leaves toward the end of cooking, so the flavor stays bright and intense. If using dried basil, add it early on when cooking a dish so that the herbs have time to release their flavor.
Fresh basil can also be blended into olive oil with salt and pepper for a quick flavored oil or pistou. You can strain out the leaves after the oil has been infused or leave the leaves in the oil.
How to Store Basil
Fresh basil will last for at least a week if you wrap it in a slightly damp paper towel and then place the bundle in a sealable plastic bag or container. Place it in the crisper drawer for even better storage conditions (it’s less cold than the back of the fridge).
Dried basil, like all dried herbs, should be stored in a sealed container in a cool dry place.
A neighbor gave me a basil plant. I made pesto with some of it. The pesto came out spicy hot. What on Earth can I do with this stuff?
Well, you can always add more olive oil and make it into kind of a basil oil for drizzling, vs. pesto used in larger quantities. But also, think about combining it with a mild starch – pasta, couscous, mashed potatoes. Maybe mash a bit into a baked potato. Toss some with roasted potatoes. Mix it with more oil, and brush it on sliced country bread, then toast for a nice instant crostini or bruschetta (maybe top it with brie or another soft double or triple creme cheese?)