Fresh basil is definitely one of the signature tastes of summer, if only because we manage to find a way to add it to everything from pasta sauces to cocktails! Want to get the biggest, freshest flavor possible from your basil? Just make it the very last thing you add to your dish.
Many herbs do well over extended cooking and gradually infuse a stew or sauce with their particular herby flavor — basil, however, is not that. Basil has a lot of delicate flavor and aroma compounds that will heighten briefly when the basil first hits the heat, but then break down if the basil is cooked too long. Add basil at the beginning of a long simmer and by the time you serve your dish, you'll only taste a shadow of what it once was.
That's why it's best to add the basil only in the last minute or so of cooking. This is just enough time to activate those oils and chemical compounds so that the flavors and aromas are at their peak just as you're serving your dish. If you're making something like a lasagna or stuffed chicken breast where the basil goes into the filling, just reserve a little of the basil to sprinkle over the top before serving.
Basil is so fantastic. Give this technique a try and see if you notice the difference!
This post has been updated. Originally published 6/15/09.
(Image: Emma Christensen)