© Paula Trites
Basil is an annual herb which is part of the mint family. It will grow about 3 feet high (1 metre) if not cut. There are several different varieties with different leaf colours, scents, etc. Asian Basils are more pungent whereas European varieties are sweeter and milder.
Basil is an annual herb used mostly in savoury dishes.
There are many varieties. Most are green-leafed, but some varieties have red or purple leaves. The most common variety is Genovese, aka Sweet Basil.
For the most part, basil is a hardy plant, and will tolerate a lot — just not cold.
Both the leaves and stems are used, either whole, chopped or puréed.
Basil will flower with white or purple flowers, depending on the variety.
The taste of basil contains hints of liquorice; the pointy-leafed Thai variety even more so.
Italian cooking doesn’t often use basil with meats; it uses oregano instead.
Basil is good dry or fresh (but never use the dried basil for pesto.)
If you are growing your own basil, in a clump, windowbox or pot, the following two steps should keep your basil in good form right till the end of the summer:
- Prune it every 2-3 weeks to stop it from going scraggly;
- Whenever flowers form, pinch them off as soon as you see them or the plant will stop producing leaves and go into reproduction mode, dying back afterward.
The flowers are edible, with a very mild basil taste, but their taste also has a slightly bitter note to it which not everyone likes. They make a nice garnish on salads, can be tossed into pesto to add a few bitter notes to it to give it a slightly more complex flavour, can be let sit in olive oil or white wine vinegar for a few weeks to give a lightly basil-flavoured oil or vinegar.
African Blue Basil fans say that its flowers are never bitter.
Some people say that you should always tear basil by hand, and never chop the leaves with a knife as they will turn black. This is a myth; many food writers are now admitting this and blaming the belief on other people.
Fussier recipe writers will say don’t wash your basil, just gently wipe the leaves — one at a time. This is also completely unnecessary. A wash then a whiz in a salad spinner will ensure that it’s dry enough for your pesto.
Basil is most well known in the West for its use in Italian pesto sauces. Fresh leaves are also nice with a plate of sliced tomatoes, olive oil and mozzarella cheese (this is known as a “caprese salad.”) Dried basil is wonderful in baked tomato dishes.
To make a basil oil, layer basil leaves in a jar with coarse sea salt and pour extra virgin olive oil over it all. Store in the fridge. You won’t want to use the leaves themselves as they will turn black, but you will get a very tasty oil.
1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried
1 oz dried = 28g dried = 3/4 cup dried
1/2 oz fresh = 14g fresh = 1 cup fresh chopped
4 tablespoons dried = .35oz = 10g
1 cup fresh basil leaves plucked off stems = 25 g
You can freeze chopped or puréed Basil in ice cube trays covered with water or olive oil. For further advice, see under Storage on main entry for Herbs.
Basil was originally from India, where it has been cultivated since about 3000 BC. Basil leaves are used as part of Hindu funeral rites.
Literature & Lore
© Denzil Green
Some theories hold that the name “Basil” comes from the Greek work for king — Basileus — because it was considered a noble and sacred herb. The belief was that it should only be cut by a noble person using “noble” metal, which may the source of today’s superstition about not chopping Basil with a knife.
An old superstition also connected Basil with scorpions. It was believed that if you left a sprig of Basil under a pot, it would turn into a scorpion. Some also felt that if you smelt Basil, you would develop a scorpion in your brain.
A legend says that Emperor’s Constantine mother, St Helena, learnt in her vision that she would be able to identify the place of Christ’s crucifixion by finding a place that was sweet with herbs. She found Basil growing at the place, and brought some back to Greece.
Greenspan, Dorie. Basil & Friends. Wall Street Journal. 20 August 2011