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Sweet basil has an ineffable flavour reminiscent of anise, clove, and mint. Although its aroma is heady, the flavour of most varieties is mild and sweet enough that it can be used in abundance. Dried basil loses much of the sweet delicacy and subtlety of its fresh counterpart, with a spicier, clove-mint flavour that works best in long-cooked sauces.

There are more than 50 species of basil, differing in size, colour, appearance, and flavour, and even more cultivars. Large-leafed sweet basil is the variety most commonly used in the kitchen.

Holy basil (O. sanctum) has an intense, pungent aroma and attractive, deep purple blossoms. Sacred in India, it is often planted around Hindu shrines.

Genovese (or bush) basil (O. minimum) has small leaves with mild flavour and is used for classic pesto.

The highly aromatic basil napoletano is grown in the region of Naples, Italy, and has large, rounded, light green, crinkled leaves; a sweet fragrance; and a mellow, rich flavour.

Purple ruffled basil (O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’) has a mild, pleasing flavour and deeply coloured ruffled leaves that are attractive in a salad or as garnish.

Strikingly beautiful dark opal basil (O. basilicum ‘Purpureum’) is deep purple with smooth leaves and a minty flavour.

Thai basil (O. basilicum ‘Thai Queen’ and others) has slender oval leaves with purple stems and blossoms. Because only cooking fully releases its exotic peppery flavour, this type is not eaten raw, but added in generous amounts to stir-fries and spicy soups.

Cinnamon basil (O. basilicum ’Cinnamon’) has a distinct cinnamon fragrance that complements Southeast Asian dishes.

Refreshing lemon basil (O. citriodora) and lime basil (O. americanum), both from Thailand have a citrusy flavour.

Curly (or lettuce-leafed) basil (O. crispum) has leaves almost as large as lettuce and may be added to salad or used to wrap fish before steaming.

Other Names
Albahaca or alfábega (Spanish); anise basil; bai krapao (Thai holy basil); barbar, subja, or tulsi (Hindi); basilic or herbe royale (French); basilico (Italian); bush basil; cinnamon basil; Genovese basil; holy basil; hung que or rau que (Vietnamese); lemon basil; lettuce-leafed (or curly) basil; opal basil; purple ruffled basil; sweet basil; Thai basil
Basil is best in summer months, when field-grown basil is available. Hothouse basil is available and satisfactory most of the year. Look for Thai holy basil in Southeast Asian stores and at farmers’ markets. Look for flavoured basil plants at garden stores or buy flavoured basil in bunches at farmers’ markets.
Purchase and Avoid
For powerfully fragrant basil that will last, choose field-grown basil. It may be very sandy and should be washed thoroughly. In hot weather, basil can become bitter and harsh, especially after flowering.
Sometimes local basil is sold roots and all; this type may be replanted in soil. For kitchen use, cut away the roots, wash the branches, and spin dry before storing.
Hothouse basil is more tender, less fragrant, and more fragile than field-grown, but makes the brightest green pesto because its leaves crush easily.
Avoid basil that is wilting or that has dark spots, a sign of overchilling, or slimy dark-coloured leaves, a sign that the leaves have spoiled.
Basil is quite tender and perishable. To store, trim the stems, pull off any lower side leaves, and stand the bunch in a jar with enough cool water to just cover the base of the stems. Leave at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, changing the water daily. Alternatively, wrap the basil in paper towels and place in a plastic bag. Refrigerate in the warmest part of the refrigerator—usually under the light or on the top shelf—for 1 to 2 days.
Note Basil blackens easily when bruised or cut, especially if the knife is dull or made from carbon rather than stainless steel.
Serving Suggestions
  • Make basil chiffonade (shredded basil) by layering washed and dried leaves, rolling into a cylinder, and slicing crosswise into thin strips using a sharp knife.

  • Toss with olive oil, diced ripe yellow and red tomatoes, red onions, and fresh mozzarella, heat gently, and toss with capellini.

  • Add torn Thai basil to pad thai, a noodle dish with shrimp, bean sprouts, and toasted peanuts.

  • Process together softened butter with chopped garlic and basil.

  • Spread on split Italian bread, wrap in foil, and bake to make garlic bread.

Food Affinities
  • carrot

  • chicken

  • fish

  • garlic

  • goat cheese

  • lemon

  • mozzarella

  • olive oil

  • sweet corn

  • tomato

  • veal

  • zucchini

Category: Spices and Herbs

Sub Category: Herb

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