Jessica Scipioni

Everything You Need To Know About Basil

The aroma is unmistakable. Its sweet smell is a reminder of summer; the flavor is fragrant and the color vibrant. We are talking about basil! Used in Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and other cuisines, let us all learn everything possible about this humble yet formidable herb, from its uses to its history and how you can grow it yourself.

Basil Nutrition Facts

Not only is basil delicious, but it is good for you. It is packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which have many beneficial health properties. Here are the exact numbers:

Nutritional information in two tablespoons of basil (5 g)

Energy1.2 kcal
Folate (mcg)3.6
Calcium (mg)8.2
Vitamin A (mcg, RAE)14
Beta carotene (mcg)162
Beta cryptoxanthin (mcg)2.4
Lutein and zeaxanthin (mcg)294
Vitamin K (mcg)21.8

History of Basil

Isabella and the pot of Basil

Basil has been around for over 4000 years and its origin is attributed to India. The humble plant easily spread to other countries as it was possible to cultivate it indoors. Egyptians used it in embalming their mummies and other cultures used it as a protector, a snake poison antidote, and a symbol for mourning. It reached England in the 1600s and America in the 1800s.

Today basil is mainly grown in the Mediterranean, sub-tropical regions, and California. The main kinds used are sweet basil (in Italian and Mediterranean cuisines) and Thai basil ( in Asian cuisines). However, there are over 150 varieties of basil, and the uses range from food to garnish, essential oils, soaps, and medicine.

Types of Basil

Basil is part of the mint family and it is called the “King of Herbs” due to its popularity. These are the main types grown and used around the world. 

Ocimum Basilicum

Ocimum Basilicum
Ocimum Basilicum

Also known as “sweet basil”, this is the most common type of basil grown in the world. It is a perennial (lives longer than two years) plant in warm climates and annual in colder areas; it flowers between August and September. Ocimum basilicum “genovese” is an Italian strain of this basil considered the top choice for pesto. In Liguria, the pesto region, this basil has been registered as DOP, meaning it must follow strict guidelines to maintain its wholesomeness. This basil’s leaves are smaller and devoid of any mintiness. Aside from pesto, it goes wonderfully with eggplants, sauces, and pastas, but it has recently made an appearance in less traditional foods such as basil gelato, sorbets, and cocktails. 

Purple Basil

Purple Basil
Purple Basil

Purple basil is still in the O. basilicum family, but - you guessed it- it is purple due to extra pigments from anthocyanins. The flavor is a bit stronger than its green cousin, with some notes of clove and anise. Purple basil is widely used in Asian cuisine and it goes well with meats and fish, aside from making for a beautiful edible garnish. The chemical composition and growth are the same as its green counterpart, though- due to the purple pigments- purple basil is higher in flavonoids which provide antioxidant effects. 

Napoletano Basil

Napoletano Basil
Napoletano Basil

Napoletano Basil is considered lettuce-leaf basil (latin name is O. basilicum crispum) due to its very large green leaves. The flavor is milder than some green basils but still very fragrant and it is great on pizza (what would you expect from a Neapolitan basil?), salads, and sauces.

Pro tip: break the basil leaves with your hands instead of using a knife- this way the flavor will not be altered at all. 

Greek Basil

Greek Basil
Greek Basil

Greek basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum) grows wild in Greece, where it is simply known as “bush basil”.The leaves are smaller and sweeter and produce small white flowers in the summer. It handles cold climates well. Greek basil tastes better uncooked (like most basils, to retain flavor and aroma) and it adds a perfect touch of freshness to grilled vegetables, bruschette, fruit salads, and fresh cheeses.

Holy Basil

Holy Basil
Holy Basil

The nicknames given to this special basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), “ Mother Medicine of Nature” and “hot basil”, give us some insight into the characteristics of this herb. Holy basil is used for medicinal purposes (more on that later) and in Thai dishes as a spicy addition. Its flavor is distinct due to peppery and clove-like notes. The “holy” title comes from a legend about Indian gods and how this basil came about. Many attribute healing and spiritual properties to holy basil, which has been included in religious and worship rituals. 

Thai Basil

Thai Basil
Thai Basil

This spicy basil, with notes of anise and licorice, is native to Southeast Asia and most commonly used in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian cuisines. The leaves are small and narrow and can be cooked longer than sweet basil without losing their flavor. It works wonders in Asian dishes with noodles, curries, and spiced meats. Thai basil is usually served as a side to Pho and other Asian soups, so fresh leaves can be added as the person enjoys their meal.

Lemon Basil

Lemon Basil
Lemon Basil

Most people would agree that basil and lemon go well together in most dishes. Imagine a basil that comes with both fragrances built-in! Fortunately, lemon basil exists, and it is a strain of Thai basil. With its citrusy aroma, it is a wonderful accent to fresh fish and shrimp. Other interesting uses include its incorporation into jams, cocktails, lemonades, and vinaigrettes. Picture the mild lemony zest in a ginger scone or a coconut milk curry. Summer in a bite

Cinnamon Basil

Cinnamon Basil
Cinnamon Basil

Cinnamon basil likes hot temperatures (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit) and contains cinnamite, which gives it a warm cinnamon flavor. The leaves are dark green and the stems cinnamon color. It is also known as Mexican basil for its widespread use in Mexico, where it thrives due to the warm climate. In Mexico, it is mostly used for medicinal purposes and in poutporris, but cinnamon basil is great in herbal teas, spiced pies, as well as savory dishes.    

African Blue Basil

African Blue Basil
African Blue Basil

This less known basil is a hybrid between camphor basil and dark opal basil and it is a perennial shrub. It grows in tropical and subtropical regions. The leaves are thicker than sweet basil and are usually infused to make oils for medicinal use, flavoring and repelling insects, as well as herbal teas. The purple flowers are also edible and can be a great garnish on any dish that calls for basil. These flowers are sterile (they do not go to seed) so they are a nice addition to home gardens because they do not need to be removed and attract lots of butterflies and bees. 

SummaryFrom notes of lemon to cinnamon and camphor, there is a vast array of basil fragrances and tastes. These l[end themselves to so many dishes- from chicken to ice cream- not to mention medicines and potpourris.

Basil Health Benefits

We mentioned before that basil contains lots of antioxidants. This is wonderful news, as research has shown that these antioxidants reduce the risk of arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes. You get the most benefits by eating basil uncooked and fresh (as opposed to dried) or having a generous quantity of it infused in herbal tea. Basil essential oils also provide these powerful nutrients. Holy basil is the variety with the most healing properties as the phytochemicals contained in it can offer protection against oral, liver, lung, and skin cancer.

Pro tip: break the basil leaves with your hands instead of using a knife- this way the flavor will not be altered at all.

Growing Basil

Don’t have a green thumb? Not to worry, basil is fairly easy to plant and grow- and with these pro tips, success is at your fingertips.

Growing Basil Outdoors

Video of how to grow basil outdoors

Now that we have learned about different types of basil, pick your favorite seeds and start the planting process, which will be similar for most kinds of basil. Basil needs warm weather and warm soil, so start this process in indoor vases about six weeks before the last spring frost, and then move your basil outdoors once temperatures are consistently warm (perfect soil temperature is around 70 Fahrenheit, 21 Celsius). A sunny spot is preferable, though partial sun can still do the trick. Plant the seeds about 10-12 inches apart and ¼ inch deep and do not use any insecticides if you plan on eating the basil! The soil should always be moist but well-drained (raised beds are perfect for this) - during a dry summer you can water freely. Now just have a little patience and let the water and sunshine work their magic.

Growing Basil Indoors

Video of how to grow basil indoors

If you like to enjoy the wonderful taste of fresh basil in winter or lack outside space, you can grow your basil indoors. Buy yourself some high-quality soil and a packet of seeds- you can get a seed starting mix so that you do not need to add fertilizer for a while, as they already come rich in nutrients. Place your pots in a warm bright spot of the house, where sunshine hours will be maximized. If your house does not get any sunshine, you may want to invest in a grow light. Make sure your basil plant is not by a drafty window where the temperature may get very cold at night. Place your seeds as described in the above paragraph, and lightly water the soil.

As the basil grows, rotate the pots so the plant does not lean too much in one direction (toward the sun). If you use a grow light keep it on about 14 hours a day- if white spots appear move the light further away! Within a month you will have the satisfaction of having grown your own basil. The aroma in the house will be a source of comfort, you will save money from not buying basil at the supermarket, and you can brag to your friends that your pesto is homemade and homegrown. 

How to Harvest Basil

Video of how to harvest basil

Pick the leaves once they are 6-8 inches long, best if done early in the morning when leaves are juiciest. Cut them at about 3 inches from the base of the plant. If temperatures soar above 80 Fahrenheit or drop below 50 you will want to harvest the leaves before they start falling off or die from the cold. 

Pruning Basil

Video of how to prune basil

Trimming your basil regularly will encourage growth. As soon as you see flowers, gently pluck them out. If the plant grows vertically, regularly pinch off a few leaves from the top to encourage lateral growth. Keep trimming as the plant gets too bushy or crowded. But do not waste the leaves you cut off! Use them within a couple of days or instantly freeze them by placing them in an airtight, resealable plastic bag. Freezing is better than drying as it helps to retain more aroma. 

Dried vs Fresh Basil

In many recipes that call for fresh basil, dried basil just won’t do- a perfect example is pizza, a Caprese salad, or a bowl of pho. Dried basil actually has more of a minty flavor so this will affect the final taste of the dish and does not work well with tomato sauces (unless you are going for minty tomato sauce). Dried basil is ok when used for long cooking times (i.e. to season meat) and a strong fresh basil aroma is not necessary. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Basil

Enough so that the soil stays constantly moist but does not get soggy- soggy soils will get moldy. Depending on how much sunshine it gets, how hot it is, and how dry the air is, basil might need watering twice a day, every other day, or just once a week indoors. Many gardeners say the best way to really know is to stick your finger in the soil.
Any sweet basil will do. Napoletano basil has a nice balanced aroma great for pizza. Make sure to add it right after the pizza comes out of the oven for the most flavor.
Sweet basil is an annual plant but could be perennial in areas with no winter (subtropical). Some varieties, such as the African blue basil, are perennial.
Set your oven at the lowest temperature. Remove the stems from the leaves and place them on parchment paper. Bake for a couple of hours until the leaves crumble. Let them cool and place in an airtight container. If you have time, you can also air-dry basil in 4 weeks.
Jessica Scipioni
Jessica Scipioni was born in Rome, raised in Florida, and moved to Napoli 4 years ago. She has seen Italian food being ruined in many places, so she is passionate about presenting the real, authentic, and genuine Italian food to the world. She loves traveling, running, and, of course, pizza.
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