Brush your fingers over a basil leaf and your hand doesn’t even have to come near your nose for the scent to be captured and the aroma transmitted to your brain. When you picture basil, if you envision the dried green flakes in your spice rack or even the smooth, well-formed leaves of common basil, you’re missing out. Within the basil species exist many more varieties in leaf color, shape and, most importantly, that terrific scent and flavor.
Basil in the Garden
If you live in an area that receives frost and cold temperatures during the year, you probably don’t have the ideal conditions for growing basil as a hardy year-round herb. A warm-weather native that thrives in heat, basil grows as a tender perennial in its native habitats of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America. However, in the United States, basils should be treated as tender annuals—they are easily damaged by frost.
Megan Hall, manager of Sycamore Farms Nursery in Paso Robles, California, says, “Basil is tropical. It likes lots of light, heat and moisture. In a hot, dry climate, basil leaves get tougher, but have more intense flavor. Greenhouse-grown basil, because of the filtered sun, will have softer leaves with a generally less-pungent flavor. Very young basil can be eaten with stems and all; older basil’s stems are quite woody.”
Growing Basil from Seed
Start seeds inside, allowing seedlings to dry out slightly between waterings. Set starts out in the garden when nighttime temperatures are generally above 50 degrees and daytime temperatures are above 70 degrees. You may also start seeds outside when the danger of frost has passed. Choose an area that receives full sun, is well drained and is protected from threat of cold. Pinch back leaves to stimulate side-shooting for a bushier plant. In addition, pinch off flower buds to continually encourage leaf growth.
Start potted basils from seed or nursery plants rather than from garden plants, which may be buggy and chewed over. Select a pot for your basil that seems too large for the plant, as the plant will likely grow into it. Ensure good drainage to prevent root rot, and make sure your potted basil receives plenty of light, preferably in a south-facing window where it’s sure to soak up direct sunlight. Pale leaves and weak stems are an indication the plant needs more light. During the winter months when daylight hours and sun strength are limited, your indoor basil may show signs of difficulty. Growth will slow, and to compensate you must restrict watering to avoid root rot. This isn’t to say you should refrain from watering completely—simply keep the roots moist but not wet.
Couple your favorite basil with plants that can appreciate similar conditions and also complement the plant with variety in color, leaf shape and stature. Combine a couple of different basils such as purple ruffles and a dwarf spicy globe with other sun-loving herbs, or show off the splendor of several of your favorites in their own basil patch.
Basil in the Kitchen
For the best flavor, harvest basil leaves just before flowers develop. Never refrigerate basil, as the cold causes the leaves to turn black. Use only the leaves (never the stems) in your favorite recipes. Lemon basil is ideal for seasoning fresh fish, and many gardeners and cooks say Genovese basil is their favorite. Fresh, sweet basil mixed with diced tomatoes, bell pepper, avocado and garlic makes a tasty summer treat.
Favorite Basil Uses
We asked some of our contributors to share their favorite basils and their best-loved uses for the herb. Here are their replies.
I have two favorites. First is lemon basil, for which I make Lemon Basil Steamed Shrimp on the grill. My other favorite is Purple Ruffles basil, which I use with blackberry juice, a bit of fresh lemon juice, sugar and yogurt for a scrumptious sorbet. —Jim Long
If I could grow only one variety of basil, it would have to be Ocimum amerericanum ‘Genoa Profumatissima’. The delicate balance of spicy licorice, clove and cinnamon with zesty citrus makes this sweet variety so versatile in recipes. It imparts just the right floral-spice-anise-mint essence for salsas, soups, pestos (of course) and grilled summer vegetables. But it excels in sweet dishes like rice pudding, sweet sauces and soft, saucy pudding cakes. ‘Profumatissima’ is similar to O. basilicum ‘Genovese’ but with slightly more anise flavor. Both varieties have large, floppy leaves that are great for chiffonade. To do this, I stack three or four leaves and roll them from the stem end like a cigar. With a knife, I cut very thin slices through the roll. This gives me long, thin strands, perfect for garnishing pasta and rice dishes or for floating on creamy soups.
For an easy, sweet sauce that’s delicious with fresh summer berries, combine in a small saucepan 1/2 cup soy milk, a 2-inch piece of fresh vanilla bean and 2 tablespoons basil chiffonade. Heat until bubbles form around the outside of the pan, then remove from the heat and cool. Remove vanilla bean. In a food processor or blender, process 12 ounces silken or soft tofu with cooled basil-milk until smooth. Spoon over fresh peaches, cherries or berries. —Pat Crocker
Spicy globe basil is my preference because I’m a city gardener and there are lots of cats and other critters that are likely to get into it. I can grow it up off the ground in a hanging basket and it does great there. When cooking, my favorite use for it is to chop it into fresh spaghetti sauce with tomato, onion and olive oil. I also often add it to any minestrone or vegetable soup. —Mary Fran McQuade
My favorite basil is Sweet Genovese (Genovese profumitissima). I like it for cooking and to have in a vase in the kitchen to stroke for the wonderful aroma it releases. I grow fine, Purple Ruffles, Mammoth, Sweet Dani lemon and Thai basils. I think the lemon in Sweet Dani overpowers other flavors, so I usually combine it with the other basils when I make pesto.
My favorite way to use/preserve basil is to mix all the varieties in a food processor with lots of garlic and enough olive oil to make a wet paste-like consistency. I put it in small jars, cover the tops with a thin layer of olive oil and freeze it. I always have a jar in the freezer to use in any recipe that calls for basil or needs a Mediterranean touch. After taking what I need, I flatten what remains in the jar and again add a thin layer of olive oil to keep the color fresh and green. It seems to last indefinitely if I keep the olive oil “lid” on it.
During our recent pizza craze , I painted the pesto-like mixture on the dough before adding other ingredients. —Pat Herkal
Ilove the pouting lips and heady scent of Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese.’ It stands so green and glossy in the garden, tossing its mane and perfuming the air in all its wide-hipped glory. But it seems to thrive best in a pot, where its whims can be fulfilled easily — say, an extra drink on a too-hot afternoon or a trip indoors if the season turns cool.
The purple-leafed varieties are beautiful, but Genovese cooks best, I think. Of course, Italian food is its forté. The variety supposedly comes from the Genova area of Italy, famous for its pesto. It certainly reminds me of everything I associate with Italy: appetite, beauty and fresh, abundant life. Italy is where I first learned to use fresh basil. Believe me, I say that with the same enthusiasm I feel when asked where I first fell in love.
A true Italian sauce is often as light and fresh as the fruits of the summer garden. This was all news to me until a few years ago, where in a self-serve cafeteria in Bolzano, Italy, I ordered Penne Basilico in shaky Italian. As the penne cooked, the pasta goddess smiled and provided the revelation that I have since repeated to all who will listen: Tomato sauce does not need to be cooked for hours with wizened herbs and canned Romas. It doesn’t even need meat.
Here is the recipe (if you can call it that) from the pasta goddess in Bolzano. Most things Italian are not measured, but are as impetuous and intuitive as falling in love.
Swirl some olive oil into a very hot pan, then lob a crushed clove or two of garlic therein. Fling in two handfuls of fresh, chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt. Sizzle. Now toss in a hefty handful of basil leaves (Genovese, of course), until the herb is perspiring gently. Drain the pasta, whip onto a large plate and pour the sauce over. Now, carry your prize gently to a table set with wine, bread and oil. Say “yes” to the Parmesan, and prepare to be seduced by the sweet, sharp scent of Italy. —Nancy Allison
My favorite basil is the old-fashioned, voluptuous ‘Lettuce Leaf’ basil. Huge, puckered, fragrant, chartreuse leaves ornament large plants. By midsummer in Atlanta, the plants grow into semi-woody shrubs taller than hip-high. Nothing is more enjoyable than getting up just before dawn on a summer morning and going down to pinch off the beautiful white-lipped flowers before the bees wake up! Because basil is an annual, it continually tries to set seed and then die. But by keeping the flowers pinched off, the plants keep growing and producing more leaves for delicious consumption.
Geri’s All-time Easy Basil Summer Salad
Slice mozzarella cheese and fresh ripe tomatoes to the same thickness. Layer with lettuce-leaf basil leaves. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. —Geraldine Laufer
I love basil! One year I grew 15 kinds, only to discover that I still liked the flavor of regular old sweet basil best. The other types are fun to play with, but I keep coming back to sweet basil.
The Genovese strains have a somewhat larger leaf, which is nice. I make lots of pesto and freeze it. (A hint for an extra-luxurious pesto: replace some or all of the olive oil with softened sweet butter.)
Lettuce-leaf basil has a milder flavor than ordinary basil, but I enjoy the extra-large leaves in salads — layered with slices of juicy, ripe tomato and creamy, fresh mozzarella — and as wraps, folded around stir-fried meat or chicken and vegetables. —Leah Zeldes
I have three favorite basils: ‘Spicy Globe’, ‘Sweet Basil’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’. Ocimum minimum ‘Spicy Globe’ has one of the most attractive plant shapes, nicely rounded with dense foliage. It looks great in a vegetable garden planted as a perimeter hedge. It also makes a great pesto.
Sweet basil is the variety I use most for cooking, especially in using the whole leaf, since the leaves are nice and large. My favorite way to use it is to make grilled fresh tomato and basil open-faced sandwiches. Take a slice of French bread, add a thick slice of a tomato fresh from your garden, then place a few good-sized basil leaves over the tomato. Over the basil leaves, add a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and broil for a minute or two. Delicious.
I always grow at least a half-dozen purple ruffles plants to use for fresh flower arranging. The dark-purple leaves look beautiful with almost any flower color but are especially gorgeous with bright-orange flowers like calendulas, cosmos or marigolds, or white flowers like feverfew and daisies. —Maureen Heffernan
I like ‘Nufar’ sweet basil, as it is fusarium resistant. I use the leaves for pesto and freshly minced over a homegrown tomato.
I prefer ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon’ basil over ‘Sweet Dani’, as it has a better lemon scent and is more vigorous. I grow it especially to make vinegar for my sister-in-law. It makes a great Christmas present.
I also grow the purple-leafed cultivar ‘Osmin’ for vinegar. I tried using it for pesto but the lovely purple color oxidized to a not-so-pleasant muddy brown color — although it retained the basil flavor, it looked awful. —Andrew Van Hevelingen
I love to use basil in the bath. Nothing could be easier or more refreshing than a hot bath using any variety of this scented herb. I especially love to use cinnamon basil, which has a sweet and spicy scent that is invigorating at the end of a busy day.
Basil is also such a pretty herb that I often make bouquets of the attractive leaves for my home. All varieties work well in flower arrangements, especially Purple Ruffles, which has a lovely texture and shape. Place an arrangement next to your bath.
Sweet Basil Bath
Basil mixes well with other herbs — try these simple bath combinations. For a stimulating bath, use basil, rosemary and lavender; for a relaxing bath, try sweet basil, dark opal basil and chamomile; for a cleansing bath, use sage, thyme and lemon basil. MAKES ENOUGH FOR 1 BATH
• 1/4 cup dried or 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
• 1 large tea ball or small piece of cotton or muslin fabric
I know it’s a very romantic idea to fill your tub with leaves and flowers as you bathe, but using a tea ball or piece of fabric will make it much easier to clean your tub. Fill the tea ball or tie the leaves in a piece of muslin. Hang under the spout as you run your bath, letting the water flow through it. Gently squeeze your tea bag or allow the tea ball to float in the bath as you bathe. —Janice Cox
The basil we enjoy working with most in the kitchen is cinnamon. It is so useful, and in surprising ways. Mexican is also nice and has a very similar fruity flavor. Cinnamon is more useful than lemon or some of the other scented basils that have strong anise overtones.
We use the basil fresh during the growing season but always make cinnamon basil oil concentrate in the late summer to keep on hand in the freezer for use during the rest of the year (made with 2 cups firmly packed leaves and tender stems with about 1/2 cup vegetable oil). We add the oil concentrate in very small amounts to cookie or shortcake dough, cake batter and fruit-based baked goods, as well as fresh fruit dishes. It is outstanding with strawberries or peaches and avocado with honey and lime juice.
Blond Brownies with Cinnamon Basil and Rose Geranium
This is a standard bar cookie we have seasoned with herb concentrates. MAKES ABOUT 4 DOZEN
• 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup soft butter
• 2 cups light-brown sugar, firmly packed
• 2 eggs
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 1 tablespoon each cinnamon basil and rose geranium herbal oil concentrate (not essential oil—see directions below)
• 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 15 1/2 by 10 1/2 by 1-inch jelly roll pan. Mix dry ingredients together in a medium bowl with a wire whip. Set aside. In a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth. Stir in herbal oil concentrates and nuts at low speed. Spread evenly in prepared pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until the surface springs back when gently touched or a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Do not over bake. Cool slightly; with a sharp knife, cut into bars while still warm. Store in an airtight container when completely cool. If sticky, place a sheet of waxed paper between layers to store. For a variation, add 8 ounces chocolate or caramel morsels.
Note: To prepare herbal oil concentrate, process 2 cups of firmly packed leaves and tender stems with about 1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as canola, to make a thick paste. Use immediately or store in a sealed, heavy plastic container in freezer for up to two years. —Gwen Barclay and Madalene Hill
Sweet, lemon, cinnamon, holy or opal, lettuce leaved or ruffled are all my favorites. I’ve never tasted a basil variety I didn’t like. My childhood memories of basil include homemade pasta with pesto made by my Genovese grandmother, Luisa Schiappacasse Casazza. Although many seed companies sell products labeled Genovese basil, only once have I come across a basil with the fabulous perfume of the plants my grandmother grew in her Chicago garden. She brought the seed from Genoa, grew the plants out and saved some seed each year for next year’s crop. Unfortunately, the strain was lost in the early 1970s when she became too ill to garden.
In the spring about a decade ago, while volunteering at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I came across some small basil plants labeled “Genovese.” I dropped to my knees to get my nose nearer to the leaves and inhaled a rich, redolent scent I hadn’t smelled since my childhood. Real Genovese basil has a more complex fragrance than sweet basil, with subtle, indescribable nuances and overtones. For me it is even more special, because it resonates with my memories of a person who was very dear to me. Alas, nothing I have grown from seed has ever matched up to my memories, but the brief experience at the botanic gardens informed me that there is nothing wrong with my memory of that exceptionally scented and flavored variety. Now, if only I could get my hands on some seed!
Louise’s Herbalist’s Lunch-in-a-Hurry
This sandwich is not for anyone afraid of strong flavors. Toast a sliced onion bagel. Spread the pieces with horseradish mustard. Add thin slices of sharp white cheddar cheese, a thick slice or two of sun-warmed, vine-ripened, garden-grown tomato and whole, tender leaves of your favorite basil variety (or varieties). Put the two bagel halves together. Sit yourself down on a bench with a view of the garden, take a sip of iced tea and wake up your mouth with a big bite of bagel. It doesn’t get any better than this. —Louise Gruenberg