Culinary Arts

Culinary Guide to Basil: Benefits and Uses

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 6 min read

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Basil is best known as one of the most popular and widely used culinary herbs in the world, however throughout its history this leafy herb has been celebrated for many reasons beyond its flavor. First cultivated over 5,000 years ago, the basil plant has held deep symbolic and religious meaning from ancient Europe to India, Malaysia, and beyond. Today, it’s best known for its versatility and distinct flavor, adding herbaceousness to a wide variety of dishes all over the world.


What Is Basil?

Also known as Ocimum basilicum, basil is a member of the mint family, along with oregano, thyme, and rosemary. This leafy green herb is recognizable for its glossy, deep green color and oblong, pointed leaves.

While its point of origin is a matter of debate, basil is believed to have first been cultivated in China, India, or Africa thousands of years ago. Today, basil is commonly grown in Italy, France, Egypt, Morocco, California, and other warm locales around the world.

What Does Basil Taste Like?

The flavor of basil is a balance between sweet and savory, with hints of mint, anise, and pepper. While the initial flavor has pronounced tones of black pepper, this aromatic herb ultimately adds a hint of sweetness to any dish.

What Are the Health Benefits of Basil?

Basil is packed with beneficial essential oils that help to protect the body against harmful microbes and bacteria. This antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial herb helps to prevent the growth and spread of bacteria that cause ailments.

Rich in beta-caryophyllene and vitamin K, C, and A, basil is also a natural source of antioxidants and can help prevent inflammation, boost the metabolism, lower blood pressure, reduce free radicals, and lower blood sugar levels.

8 Varieties of Basil to Know

There are over 60 varieties of basil. The most common types include:

  1. Sweet Basil (aka genovese basil or common basil) - The most common and widely available form of basil, with a fresh, subtly sweet flavor and aroma. Sweet basil is typically used in Italian and Mediterranean cuisines.
  2. Thai Basil (aka licorice basil) - A variety commonly used in Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine known for its smaller, darker leaves and spicy, anise-heavy flavor. Used frequently as a garnish in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.
  3. Cinnamon Basil - A mild variety of basil with a spicy, cinnamon-tinged flavor. Most frequently used in Asian cooking, including marinades, fried rice, and noodles.
  4. Purple Basil - A less-sweet variety of basil known for its deep purple tone and clove-scented flavor. Typically used as a garnish in Italian and Thai cooking, to add a hint of color and aroma.
  5. Lettuce Basil - With larger, wrinkled leaves reminiscent of lettuce, this basil has a milder flavor than its counterparts and is often used as a base for salads.
  6. Holy Basil - This form of basil is known for its religious uses rather than its flavor. Holy basil is revered in the Hindu religion as a symbol of the goddess Tulsi, and is traditionally made into basil extract that is placed around Hindu shrines. Culinarily, this variety has a bitter flavor and is most frequently used in Indian cuisine, particularly in teas and rich dishes.
  7. Lemon Basil - True to its name, lemon basil tastes like sweet basil with a hint of lemon, and can add a slightly acidic taste to a wide variety of recipes.
  8. Christmas Basil - This fruity variety of basil tastes like a cross between Genovese and Thai Sweet basil, and is typically used in drinks and desserts.

How to Buy and Store Basil

When purchasing fresh basil from the farmers’ market or produce aisle, look for vibrant, deep green leaves with no discoloration or wilting and a strong, clean aroma. When purchasing dried basil, look for an organically grown product of a higher quality, which will contain more flavor and nutrients.

  • Fresh basil leaves should be stored wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel and placed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
  • If the basil still has roots, it can be stored at room temperature standing up in a glass of water with a plastic bag tented over the herbs.
  • To extend the shelf life further, fresh basil can be chopped up and frozen into ice cube trays filled with water or stock for future use. Once solidified, freeze basil cubes in a freezer bags to free up your ice cube trays.
  • Dried basil will remain fresh in an airtight container for up to six months.

Culinary Uses of Basil

This popular herb is used in a variety of Mediterranean and Asian dishes, ranging from creamy sauces to light, herbaceous salads and spicy curries. Ingredients that are complimented by the addition of basil include meats like chicken and beef, olive oil, eggs, tomatoes, and herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano.

Basil is most aromatic when used fresh, but fresh basil should be added at the end of cooking, as excessive heat will significantly deplete the flavor or even cause the herb to turn bitter. Dried basil is preferred for use throughout the cooking process, as the flavor won’t be significantly altered by the heat.

How to Chop Basil

12 Recipe Ideas Using Basil

  1. Gordon Ramsay’s Lobster Ravioli - A star dish that remains on the menu of Chef Ramsay’s London restaurant today. Basil gently perfumes the lobster filling, and a fresh tomato chutney provides the perfect bed for these little pillows of perfection.
  2. Basil Pesto - A classic sauce comprised of basil, pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.
  3. Pomodoro Sauce - A perfect everyday pasta sauce made from fresh tomato, garlic, olive oil, champagne vinegar, and basil leaves.
  4. Chicken and Pesto Pasta - Fettuccine pasta topped with a sauce made from pesto and heavy cream, grilled and sliced chicken, and halved cherry tomatoes.
  5. Pad Krapow Gai (Thai Basil Chicken) - A simple Thai stir-fry consisting of ground chicken, Thai chiles, garlic, shallots, fish sauce, soy sauce, honey, and Thai or Holy basil.
  6. Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Basil Sauce - Spiralized zucchini noodles baked in olive oil and topped with a blended sauce of basil, avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.
  7. Caprese Salad - A classic Italian salad consisting of sliced fresh mozzarella cheese and tomato, topped with whole basil leaves and balsamic vinegar.
  8. Thai Eggplant Curry - A spicy vegetarian curry made with coconut milk, eggplant, garlic, onion, lemongrass, ginger, chicken stock, red chiles, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, and fresh Thai basil. Served with rice.
  9. Escarole, Basil, and Parmesan Salad - A light salad with a base of escarole and torn basil leaves, topped with a vinaigrette, parmesan, fresh tomatoes, and toasted nuts.
  10. Cucumber-Basil Cocktail - A refreshing summer cocktail made from gin, muddled basil, simple syrup, cucumber, and lemon juice. Shaken and strained into a cocktail class, garnish this cocktail with a fresh basil leaf.
  11. Pad Kra Pao (Pork and Holy Basil Stir-Fry) - Ground pork stir-fried with shallots, garlic, Thai bird chiles, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, chicken broth, and holy basil leaves.
  12. Rack of lamb with basil crust - Chef Gordon Ramsay’s version of rack of lamb is lighter and brighter than some of the traditional preparations. The bright flavor of mint lifts the lamb and the cooling yogurt sauce helps mellow the heat of the mustard rub and basil crust.

Find more culinary techniques in Chef Gordon Ramsay’s MasterClass.