Spice support: basil

Few things scream summertime more than a caprese salad with fresh basil. A member of the mint family, basil is a workhorse in the Italian kitchen, but that is far from the only cuisine that makes good use of this aromatic herb. 

basil ice cream

Like mint, basil has several varieties, each with its own unique aroma and flavor. There are also several related species or hybrids also called basil, so the nomenclature can be confusing. The most common variety is called sweet basil or Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum). Other common types are Thai basil (O. basilicum var.  thyrsiflora),  lemon basil (O. × citriodorum), and holy basil (O. tenuiflorum or O. sanctum). According to Purdue University’s Center for New Crops and Plant Products, it has been difficult to classify the more than 60 varieties of basil due to the plant’s polymorphic character and propensity for cross-pollination.

Basil is native to India and other tropical regions stretching from Africa to Southeast Asia, but became globalized due to human cultivation. It possesses an anise-like flavor with hints of pepper and mint. Holy basil’s major flavor compound is clove-like, due to its high eugenol content. Lemon basil, as its name suggests, has a strong lemon scent. Some botanists feel that lemon basil is a separate plant andshould be categorized differently. Of the dozens of types of basil, flavors can include cinnamon, camphor, anise, or licorice notes. 

Because the different types of basil have varying flavor compounds, which type you use depends on which flavor you want to emphasize. Although you can use basil either fresh or dried, most recipes specify that you use fresh basil because the herb loses much of its strength in the drying process. As Marcella Hazan writes in Essentials of Classic Italian cooking, “The most useful thing one can know about basil is that the less it cooks, the better it is, and that its fragrance is never more seductive than when it is raw.” You can also freeze basil, and frozen pesto cubes are a wonderful culinary shortcut. 

Most people think of basil as a savory herb, but its mint-like properties make it equally suited for sweet dishes. My favorite ice cream contains basil, and it pairs well with strawberries. Basil complements a variety of vegetables, none more so than tomatoes. The combination of basil and tomato is a classic, whether in a simple caprese salad or as a late addition to a long-simmering tomato sauce. 

Basil is a tender plant that is exceptionally cold sensitive, and if stored in the refrigerator it has a tendency to turn black. To avoid this, make sure that the water you use to rinse it is not too cold, and store the herb in a vase as you would cut flowers (bonus: the kitchen will smell fantastic). Change the water in the vase daily. Even with this tender treatment, the freshness window for fresh basil is short. Plan to use, freeze, or dry the herb shortly after you purchase or harvest it. 

If you have an abundance of basil in your garden or take home a huge haul from the market, indexed magazine Food & Wine offers several basil recipe ideas to get you headed in the right direction. You can also browse the EYB Library to find wonderful items like these: 

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