Inside the Spice Cabinet: Basil

updated May 2, 2019
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For us, it wouldn’t be summer without a bunch of fresh basil in the kitchen. We layer the fragrant leaves with sliced heirloom tomatoes, tear them into salads, or grind them into pesto. From sweet basil to lemon basil and Thai basil, we just can’t get enough of this essential, intoxicating herb.

What Is Basil?

Taste: Sweet
Most Popular Use: Pasta, sauces, salads, fish, vegetables

A member of the mint family, basil originated in India and spread throughout the world thousands of years ago, becoming an important ingredient in many Southeast Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. Different sources cite more than 60 or even 100 varieties of basil in existence today. Those grown in North America and Europe are sweeter in flavor, while Middle Eastern varieties tend to be more peppery. The best thing to do is just experiment and taste the different varieties to learn which aromas, flavors, and colors you enjoy with different ingredients.

When shopping for fresh basil at the market, look for vibrant, aromatic leaves without any dark spots. Once home, wrap the leaves in a damp towel and store inside a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. Alternatively, place the stems in a glass of water, cover the whole thing with a plastic bag, and keep in the refrigerator.

How To Use Basil

Sweet or Genovese basil is the most common type in the U.S., and it is ideal for Italian dishes, an essential ingredient in pesto sauce, and pairs quite well with tomatoes. Thai basil is more pungent and good for stir-fries, soups, and Southeast Asian salads. Lemon basil adds a citrusy aroma to pesto and fish dishes, while cinnamon or Mexican basil works well in desserts. Purple basil varieties are lovely additions to salads.

Recipes for Cooking with Basil