Basil (scientific name: Ocimum Basillicum), is a beautiful, bright herb originating in Africa and Southeast Asia. It has a taste frequently described as minty (it is actually in the mint family) with subtle licorice overtones. It also has an extraordinary perfume when fresh.
There are many types of basil that are used in culinary applications. Probably the most familiar is Sweet Basil. It plays a role in many Mediterranean, and particularly Italian, cuisines. And is particularly popular in the US as it forms the basis for pesto sauce. That delicious paste of basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, and extra-virgin olive oil swept the country in the 80s, greatly contributing to the herb’s popularity, and is now ubiquitous in grocery stores, restaurants, and home kitchens alike.
The list of other culinary basil varieties is lengthy, with the names giving you a hint as to what other flavors they bring to the party—such as chocolate basil, lemon basil, Thai basil, cinnamon basil. You get the idea. Leaf colors span from rich green to deep purple, with smooth or crinkled leaves. The flower buds are also edible.
Basil is easy to grow, but it only grows outdoors in the summer—and only once the soil has warmed up nicely—so plan accordingly.
Basil grows best in six to eight hours of full sun each day. You will have fewer disease problems and sturdier plants. This is the case except in the hottest climates where basil does best in partial shade.
Soil: Basil does best in moist, rich, well-draining soil. It's a good idea to amend your soil with compost or other nutrient-rich mulch.
Water: Water basil deeply on a regular basis, but be sure its soil is well-drained. Use mulch to help keep moisture in.
Temperature and Humidity: Basil is a heat lover. Don't bother planting it until the daytime temperatures remain in the 70s and night temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds can be started indoors three to four weeks before your last spring frost date.
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow indoors, so you can have that summery fragrance and taste all winter long.
If you’re planning on making pesto, grow several plants. For other uses, one or two basil plants yields plenty. Plant seeds or transplants after all danger of frost has passed and soil is warm, and it will yield an abundant harvest within weeks.
Harvesting and Storing
Because of the herb’s propensity to bruise and darken very quickly, basil is most often used fresh, and cut or torn only moments before being used.
- Start picking the leaves of basil as soon as the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall.
- Once temperatures hit 80°F (27°C), basil will really start leafing out.
- Harvest in the early morning, when leaves are at their juiciest.
- Make sure to pick the leaves regularly to encourage growth throughout the summer.
- Even if you don’t need to leaves, pick them to keep the plant going. Store them for later use!
- If you pick regularly, twelve basil plants can produce 4 to 6 cups of leaves per week.
Basil is tricky to store. Some swear by placing the stems in water, like a flower arrangement. Others recommend washing, drying, rolling loosely in paper towels, and then storing in an unsealed zip top bag. Freezing will prevent the plant from losing a good portion of its flavor. To quick-freeze basil, package whole or chopped leaves in airtight, resealable plastic bags, then place in the freezer. But we think the safest plan is to use it all with abandon, so you have none left to store!
How to Use
Of course we are all familiar with pesto sauce, and caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt)... but there’s no reason to limit your basil usage to these (delicious) dishes. Here are a few suggestions for pairings where the flavor and perfume of basil will shine.
- Sprinkle fresh, chopped basil over a pizza (after it comes out of the oven) or into a wrap.
- Add basil to soups, tomato sauces, and stir-fries.
- Make a marinade with basil, olive oil, and chopped garlic.
- Add whole, chopped, or torn fresh leaves to a salad.
Basil pairs beautifully with: tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lemon, fish (especially salmon), black olives, nuts, capers, olive oil, lobster, shrimp. Basil complements other herbs and spices such as garlic, tarragon, marjoram, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary and sage.
And of course it’s fantastic for pasta dishes. It is as a star ingredient in Pasta Jay's Tomato Basil pasta sauce.
Dried basil retains almost none of the glorious perfume of the fresh, but is often used to provide an interesting herbal background note in cooked dishes. If a recipe calls for fresh basil but you only have dried, use just 1/3 of the measurement, as dried is more concentrated.
If using fresh basil in a cooked dish, be sure to add it at the very last minute because heat can diminish the flavor and bright green color.
Basil enlivens many dishes. We hope we've inspired you to use it in your recipes.
This article was originally published on My Recipes by David McCann