Learn about historic uses for basil and how you can incorporate basil varieties into different recipes today.
I admit it. I’m prejudiced. You could even say I’m a fanatic. I’m in the business of growing herbs, and basil is by far my favorite. It touches my most basic instincts: eating pesto stimulates my most visceral needs; smelling basil makes me euphoric. Touching its sleek leaves makes me wish I could write poetry. The magic of those simple plant cells all linked together humbles me—the art of it all, so understated and still so quietly absorbing. And I’m not alone.
Basil is one of the most popular and sought-after herbs today, in the herb garden as well as in the kitchen. It’s easy to grow when it gets what it needs—plenty of sunlight, warmth, regular food and water, and pruning to keep it productive.
Human use of basil dates back at least to the famous gardens of ancient Babylon. It has been used in wedding rites and lovers’ bowers as well as on the funeral pyre.
In the days before modern medicine, cure-alls frequently contained basil. Basil was used to relieve mental fatigue as well as the romantic Victorian “vapors”; it was recommended for mosquito, scorpion and snake bites. As recently as the early 20th century, camphor basil was grown in volume and distilled for camphorated oil, an important medicinal during both world wars.
The abundant essential oils of basil explode with a vivid, stimulating perfume. Some people have considered it an aphrodisiac. Aromatherapists today use it for massage and scented baths. It is also an antidepressant, antispasmodic, tonic, stimulant, nervine and carminative.
All basil plants belong to the genus Ocimum and to the family Lamiaceae (Labiatae), a family that contains many culinary herbs. The best-known of the basil varieties are of the species basilicum,one of about 150 known species of Ocimum.
Basil is handsome enough to star in your ornamental garden. Use the broad-leafed, taller forms as foundation plantings with petunias or short marigolds and zinnias in front. The colorful purple basils—‘Dark Opal’, ‘Purple Ruffles’, tiny-leafed purples—and the bicolored ‘Genovese’ and ‘Silver Fox’ add wonderful contrasts and fragrances. Try shorter basils—‘Spicy Globe’, ‘Genovese’, ‘Dark Opal’ and lettuce-leaf—as seasonal borders or low hedges.
Basils also lend themselves, albeit somewhat unwillingly, to container culture. Most basils get quite large in the garden. It takes a sizable root system to support that top growth. Potted basils require at least a 6-inch container. Choose a container size as you would a pair of shoes for a growing child—a bit big. The container may be of any material as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom to minimize soggy soil and consequent root rot.
Pick basil at its prime, preferably early in the morning when the concentration of essential oils is highest. Its flavor is most intense when the flowering spikes are just beginning to show. (The flavor deteriorates significantly when it flowers fully.)
It’s better to preserve that distinctive basil flavor through freezing rather than drying; basil flavors lose their complexity upon drying. To freeze basil, place washed and dried leaves (discard stems) on trays in the freezer. After several hours, they will be brittle and may be crumbled and kept frozen in airtight jars or bags. Alternatively, mince the leaves, moisten them with enough water to make a thick puree, and freeze in ice-cube trays. When the cubes are frozen solid, transfer them to a freezer bag and store frozen until needed. Just add them frozen to a soup, stew or sauce.
If drying is preferable to you, space cut basil branches on a screen, and dehydrate in a dark, dry, warm place. Drying this way takes a week or two, depending on the weather. Speed up the process with a dehydrator. The basil is dry when leaves are easily crumbled. Remove dry leaves from the stems. Store them either whole or crumbled in an airtight jar. Keep the jars in a dark, cool place, away from the stove.
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). This familiar basil is great for pesto and preserving. It’s attractive in pots, but grows vigorously and needs repotting often. Numerous cultivars with different flavors are available.
Cinnamon basil (O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon’). Delicious in desserts and other sweet dishes; try this basil with rhubarb.
Lettuce-leaf basil (O. basilicum ‘Crispum’). This large variety of basil is excellent in salads and for wrapping finger foods. Seedlings are prone to damping off.
French fine-leaf basil (O. basilicum ‘Minimum’). This variety makes a great potted plant and a delicious garnish. Favored by the cooks of southern France, this is one of the hardier basils. It can tolerate temperatures four to six degrees lower than other cultivars.
Spicy globe basil (O. basilicum ‘Spicy Globe’). This variety of bush basil has a soft flavor and is quite variable when grown from seed. Its compactness makes it suitable for low borders, and it can be pruned into a ball. It’s also good as a container plant.
Camphor basil (O. kilimandscharicum). With its strong camphor scent, this purple basil is often used medicinally in herbal moth repellents, as its oil is reputedly antifungal.Camphor basil can grow 5 feet high.
Holy basil (O. sanctum). As the sacred basil of Hindus and Muslims, it is used in religious ceremonies. Also known as tulsi, this basil is sweeter than sweet basil and has a pronounced clove scent. It can be used in fruit dishes, jellies and breads, as well as potpourris and sachets. Its growth is open and lanky.
Hoary basil (O. americanum). This basil’s sweet citrus flavor is great for potpourri as well as culinary uses with fish and fruits. Tastes more like lemon than basil. Try flavoring a mild vinegar with it. Very floriferous, with long flowering spikes.
Tip: More than 150 basil varities are grown worldwide. The plant is thought to be native to India and is very popular in Mediterranean cooking.
Marilyn Hampstead is the author of The Basil Book (Pocket Books, 1984), and Terri Wuerthner is an herb lover and recipe developer.
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