Using Basil in Your Cooking

Basil tends to be one of those ingredients that you either are only familiar with as a dried herb hidden in your spice cabinet or you use it so often that you have a fresh basil plant growing in your window. We’ve been in both camps before, though we’re now firmly basil evangelists and for good reason. Basil is an outstanding herb that pairs well with many different cuisines and ingredients, whether it’s cooked or raw. After learning about how to use basil more in your cooking, we hope you’ll join us in the basil club.

What Does Basil Taste Like?

When we talk about basil, we generally mean the variety known as sweet basil, the most common type you’ll find at the grocery store. Sweet basil has a lovely herbaceous quality, almost to the extent of being floral. What this means for you, the taster, is that it’s very fresh. This makes it a perfect ingredient for when you want to encapsulate the spring and summer seasons in a dish. Sweet basil can even have a bit of pepperiness and mint if you’re looking for it. The best way to sum up the flavor of sweet basil is balanced freshness, which is the beauty of the herb.

The best way to sum up the flavor of sweet basil is balanced freshness.

As we mentioned, there are other varieties of basil that taste differently. The most common of these is Thai basil, used more often in Asian and Thai dishes. Unlike sweet basil, Thai basil is much more savory and has a licorice taste that goes well in stir-fries. Another common basil is lemon basil, and like its name implies, it has a light lemon scent while retaining some of the sweetness of basil. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to sweet basil as basil for the rest of the article, unless another type of basil is specified.

What are the Best Ways to Cook Basil?

When it comes to most herbs, there’s a big difference between whether you’re cooking them fresh or dried. This is especially true of basil. The difference when it comes to cooking with fresh and dried basil is quite stark, so it’s worth comparing how to cook with both. Dried basil has a much stronger flavor than a comparable amount of fresh basil, and this is because when the herb is dried, the flavor concentrates significantly. In fact, if you’re substituting one for the other, you only need about half the amount of dried basil to fresh (or double the amount of fresh is the recipe calls for dried).

The difference when it comes to cooking with fresh and dried basil is quite stark, so it’s worth comparing how to cook with both.

The other big difference between fresh and dried basil is how you cook it. Fresh basil may have a strong flavor when it’s raw, but when introduced to heat for a long time, that flavor quickly vanishes. To prevent this, if you’re cooking with fresh basil, add it near the end of the cooking time, such as within the last 60 seconds of cooking. Dried basil, on the other hand, needs to be cooked longer to coax out the flavors and holds its flavor in higher heats. Of course, texture also enters into whether to use fresh basil or dried. Fresh basil is much softer than dried, so if you’re adding it to a dish last minute or even after it’s cooked, you’ll have the flavor of basil without feeling like you’re chewing stems. Instead, dried basil needs to be cooked to rehydrate so that it has a more pleasant texture.

All these factors work together to encourage how to best cook the basil. If you need to cook the ingredients for a longer time or at higher heat, you should go with dried basil. If you’ll be eating the basil raw, like in a salad or seasoning a something like a caprese bruschetta, go with fresh. Finally, if you’re adding it to be cooked only a little bit, use fresh. Otherwise, the flavor is very similar with both, so as long as you aren’t overcooking the fresh basil or undercooking the dried, either is useable.

Leaf bruising leaves much of the oil on the cutting board, giving you a less flavorful ingredient.

Another important note when cooking with fresh basil is how to prepare it. It’s important that you use a very sharp knife and that you don’t over-chop the herb. As you cut the leaves, you’ll notice that they begin to turn a bit black. This is the leaf bruising and being crushed. This leaves much of the oil that shares its flavor on the cutting board, giving you a less flavorful ingredient. Over-chopping can have a similar effect, though a properly sharp knife will prevent you from losing too much flavor on the cutting board.

What Goes Well with Basil?

For an ingredient that is so balanced and fresh, it makes sense that basil works well with a large variety of foods. Its presence in Italian cuisine, for example, cannot be overlooked. It pairs well with many of the keystone ingredients of Italian cooking, like tomatoes and garlic (since the freshness helps to balance the acidity of both ingredients) and olive oil (adding freshness to the fatty tones). Basil also works well with lemons, for the same reason as tomatoes — it helps to soften the acidity and sourness. Funny enough, these ingredients are all used to make a delicious pesto sauce, but they do pair nicely in other dishes, too.

For an ingredient that is so balanced and fresh, it makes sense that basil works well with a large variety of foods.

Basil continues to shine with cheese like mozzarella (which is why it’s nice on pizza), different vegetables (mushrooms and eggplants especially), and fruits like watermelon, strawberries, and even bananas. It even can be used in cocktails! When it comes to proteins, you can use it with most meats, especially chicken and fish. Really, there’s not much that you can’t use basil with.

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That’s the beauty of basil — its mellow, fresh flavor makes it the perfect team player in a lot of different dishes. As long as you’re using it correctly, basil is a neat little plant that can pep up or balance out a dish, depending on how you need it. Your biggest worry isn’t so much how can you use it — it’s how can you use it without getting sick of it by using it in your cooking too often!