The basics on enjoying this beautifully flavorful and fragrant herb.

By David McCann
Updated August 31, 2020
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Basil (scientific name: Ocimum Basillicum), is a beautiful, bright herb originating in Africa and Southeast Asia. It has a taste frequently described as minty (it is actually in the mint family) with subtle licorice overtones. It also has an extraordinary perfume when fresh,

There are many types of basil that are used in culinary applications. Probably the most familiar is Sweet Basil, as that is the variety used most frequently to make pesto sauce in the US. That delicious paste of basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, and extra-virgin olive oil swept the country in the 80s, greatly contributing to the herb’s popularity, and is now ubiquitous in grocery stores, restaurants, and home kitchens alike.

The list of other culinary basil varieties is lengthy, with the names giving you a hint as to what other flavors they bring to the party—such as chocolate basil, lemon basil, Thai basil, cinnamon basil. You get the idea.

Credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

Tetra Images/Getty Images

Harvesting and Storing

Because of the herb’s propensity to bruise and darken very quickly, basil is most often used fresh, and cut or torn only moments before being used.

Dried basil retains almost none of the glorious perfume of the fresh, but is often used to provide an interesting herbal background note in cooked dishes. If using fresh basil in a cooked dish, be sure to add it at the very last minute.

Basil is tricky to store. Some swear by placing the stems in water, like a flower arrangement. Others recommend washing, drying, rolling loosely in paper towels, and then storing in an unsealed zip top bag. But I think the safest plan is to use it all with abandon, so you have none left to store!

How to Use

Of course we are all familiar with pesto sauce, and caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt)... but there’s no reason to limit your basil usage to these (delicious) dishes. Here are a few suggestions for pairings where the flavor and perfume of basil will shine.

Basil pairs beautifully with: tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, tarragon, lemon, fish (especially salmon), black olives, nuts, capers, olive oil, lobster, shrimp. Thus, it’s fantastic for pasta, in salads, and on pizza (after it comes out of the oven).

And just a little tip: Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow indoors, so you can have that summery fragrance and taste all winter long. And then, you can take it outdoors when the weather warms up!