What Does Basil Taste Like? And How to Use it

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Basil has been used in kitchens worldwide for centuries. Whether it’s the traditional sweet basil in Italian cuisine or the unique flavor of Thai basil, this herb is versatile and widely appreciated. But, what does basil taste like exactly? And how is it used in foods? Keep reading to learn about the flavor profile of basil and how this versatile herb can enhance your cooking.

a close up photo of basil

What is basil?

Basil is an herb known for its vibrant green leaves and distinct aroma ranging from mild to intense depending on the variety of basil. Basil is a member of the Mint family and is originally from Asia.

Basil’s popularity has made it a common ingredient in many cultures worldwide. There are several types of basil, but sweet basil is the most prevalent. Basil is a vital ingredient in various dishes, such as classic pasta sauces, pestos, curries, and Mediterranean salads.

What does basil taste like?

Basil has a distinctive and robust flavor profile that is slightly sweet and peppery with subtle hints of anise (licorice).

The taste of basil, however, is influenced by the specific different types of basil you choose. Here are some commonly found basil varieties of basil, along with their corresponding flavor profiles.

Sweet basil

Sweet basil also known as ocimum basilicum or regular basil, is the most common basil variety. Its leaves are light green, oval, and are about 4 inches in length.

Sweet basil has a less intense flavor than other types of basil and is perfect for making Italian food such as Italian sauces, soups, and pesto.

The taste of sweet basil can be described as slightly sweet with notes of mint, anise, and pepper.

Thai basil

Thai basil is characterized by its shiny green, narrow leaves that have slightly serrated edges. The Thai basil plant has purple stems, and you might see purple accents around the veins of the leaves.

Thai basil has a strong and robust peppery taste that is stronger than sweet basil. It has a distinct taste reminiscent of licorice with a hint of clove.

This herb is commonly used in Southeast Asia food such as Thai cuisine.

Lemon basil

Lemon basil looks like sweet basil, but its leaves are slightly slimmer.

Lemon basil has the same delicious taste as sweet basil, but with a refreshing lemony twist.

Lemon basil is fantastic for sweet and savory dishes, such as seafood, salads, and desserts made with fruit.

a picture of basil on a purple stem

Cinnamon basil

Mexican Basil, also known as Cinnamon Basil, has dark green shiny leaves with reddish veins, resembling mint.

Cinnamon basil’s flavor is a delightful mix of the anise flavor of common basil, with sweet and spicy notes similar to cinnamon.

Cinnamon basil is versatile and can be used in both sweet and savory recipes, making it perfect for dishes such as fruit salads, chicken, pork, or lamb.

Holy basil

The leaves of holy basil are narrow and oval-shaped, coming in various shades of light green to deep purple.

Holy Basil’s flavor is distinct and strong, with warm peppery notes, and hints of cloves, lemon, mint, and licorice.

Unlike sweet basil, holy basil is suitable for a range of dishes, including tea, curries, stir-fries, soups, and salads.

It is worth noting that holy basil is deemed sacred in Ayurvedic and Indian customs, and is used for its therapeutic properties.

Purple basil

Purple basil, also called opal basil, red basil, or black basil, has a deep eggplant color that extends to its flowers, stems, and leaves.

This variety of basil has a unique sweet and spicy flavor that is slightly stronger than traditional sweet basil.

The gorgeous color of purple basil makes it perfect for adding as a raw garnish to dishes, salads, cocktails, or desserts.

Genovese basil

Genovese basil or Italian basil looks a lot like sweet basil, but has larger, flatter leaves that are a darker shade of green.

Genovese basil has a unique flavor with hints of mint and cloves, as well as a bit of spiciness and sweetness with a peppery kick.

Although it looks similar to sweet basil, Genovese basil has larger, flatter, and darker green leaves with pointed ends.

This type of basil is commonly used in a variety of dishes, including Italian dishes such as pesto sauce, Caprese salad, tomato sauces, and even as a pizza topping.

basil growing in a pot

When is basil in season?

Even though it’s available in most supermarkets year-round, basil is a warm-weather herb that is in season in the summer. The peak growing season for basil typically starts in late spring and extends into early fall.

How to buy basil

Fresh basil can be found at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. For a constant supply of fresh basil, consider growing it in a garden or on a sunny windowsill in a pot. When purchasing fresh basil, look for vibrant leaves with a deep green color and a fragrant aroma. Avoid basil with wilted or dark-spotted leaves.

How to store fresh basil

To keep fresh basil for a longer time, trim the stems and put the bunch in a jar or glass of water. Loosely cover the leaves with a plastic bag or damp paper towel and keep the basil in the refrigerator. This way, the basil can last for 5 to 7 days.

If you want to keep the vibrant flavor of fresh basil for an extended period, you can freeze it. To do this, start by taking the leaves off the stems and either chopping them finely or leaving them whole.

Next, place the prepared basil into ice cube trays, filling each section about 3/4 full. Add water or olive oil, then put the tray in the freezer until the contents freeze entirely.

Afterward, transfer the basil cubes to a freezer-safe container and store it in the refrigerator for up to six months.

What foods go well with basil?

Basil has a unique taste, but it is a versatile herb that pairs well with many different foods. Below are some examples of food that enhance the flavor of basil.

  • Fruit – apricots, berries, lemon, lime, nectarines, orange, peaches, pineapple, potatoes, raspberries, watermelon
  • Vegetables – green beans, white beans, broccoli, burrata, corn, eggplant, onions, peas, spinach, summer squash, tomatoes, winter squash
  • Cuisines – Asian, French, Italian, Mediterranean, Thai,
  • Cheese – feta, goat, mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta,
  • Meat – beef, chicken, lamb, pork
  • Seafood – crab, mussels, salmon, shrimp, sea bass, scallops, tuna
  • Herbs/Spices – chives, cilantro, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, mint, parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme
  • Milk/Cream – coconut milk e, cream, ice cream, custards
  • Eggs and egg dishes
  • Honey
  • Olive oil, olives, capers
  • Pasta/rice dishes and sauces
  • Pizza

Are you too tired to cook dinner?

If you’re feeling uninspired when it’s time to cook dinner, this free guide will help you make a quick and healthy dinner with ingredients you have in your kitchen.

Basil flavor combinations

Get your creative juices flowing and try out these flavor combinations, or come up with your own unique ones!

Basil + Garlic + Olive Oil + Fresh Tomato

Basil + Lemon + Vanilla + Ricotta Cheese + Honey

Basil + Watermelon + Grilled Seafood

Thai Basil + Coconut Milk + Ginger + Beef

cashew pesto sauce in a jar with a spoon

Recipes with fresh basil

Arugula Basil Pesto Sauce – A unique and zesty pesto sauce recipe.

Basil Cashew Pesto – A twist on traditional pesto sauce made with cashews instead of pine nuts.

Spinach Salad with Basil – A flavorful salad that is simple to make and packed with flavor.

Broccoli Pesto – Use up leftover broccoli with this delicious pesto combination.

Tomato Basil Feta Pasta Salad – A delicious and refreshing salad perfect for the summer.

a picture of pasta salad in a white bowl

Summer Pesto Pasta Salad – An easy salad made with cherry tomatoes, creamy mozzarella tossed in a rich pesto sauce is perfect for any occasion.

Orzo Pesto Salad – A delicious and refreshing summer salad.

Garlic Herb Chicken and Cannellini Beans – A filling chicken recipe filled with fresh herbs, including basil.

Grilled Strawberry Balsamic Chicken – Tender chicken breasts are grilled and topped with strawberry and basil salsa.

One Pan Caprese Chicken – A healthy and hearty meal that is simple to make.

cooked caprese chicken in a skillet

Thai Basil Cucumber Salad – A refreshing summer salad filled with crispy cucumbers, Thai basil tossed in a simple dressing.

Cinnamon Basil Shortbread Cookies – Sweet buttery shortbread cookies are infused with cinnamon basil for a unique-tasting cookie.

Lemon Basil Shortbread Cookies – Shortbread cookies are made with tangy lemons and a kick of peppery basil.

Tomato Basil Muffins – The perfect savory quick bread that’s filled with cherry tomatoes and parmesan cheese.

Strawberry Basil Avocado Toast – Strawberry Basil  Avocado Toast is a simple prep for a breakfast favorite using the fresh berries and herbs of the season.

Baked crustless tomato pie in a white pie plate

Crustless Tomato Pie – Tomatoes and basil are the perfect summer pair! Serve this pie as a side dish or an entree with a salad.

Lemon Basil Cookie Crunch Ice Cream – Soft, creamy and full of delicious cookie chunks. This ice cream is sure to be a hit!

Tomato Basil & Garlic Filled Bread – Also known as pane bianco, this is a soft cheesy and flavorful bread!

Watermelon Basil Summer Soup – Fresh garden basil, sweet watermelon, feta, and a touch of olive oil make this super refreshing cold soup a great addition to any hot summer day.

Strawberry basil lemonade – Strawberries and fresh basil combine magically to make a stunningly refreshing drink. Spike it if you dare.

Does dried basil taste different than fresh basil?

Yes, there is a distinct difference in taste between dry and fresh basil. Fresh basil is more vibrant and fresh tasting. Dried basil, adds basil flavor, but is less potent than fresh basil.

Can I use dried basil as a substitute for fresh basil in recipes?

Yes. Dried basil can be used in most recipes. The general guideline for substituting fresh basil with dried basil is 3:1. For instance, if a recipe requires one tablespoon of fresh basil, you should use one teaspoon.

What fresh herbs can be used as a substitute for fresh basil?

Depending on the recipe, here are a few suggestions of substitutes for fresh basil: mint, oregano, parsley, and cilantro.

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