Getting to Know Basil is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box.  Primarily written by Michelle Peters Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!

The FBC Spice Box - Getting to Know Basil | Food Bloggers of Canada

Latin Name: Ocimum Basilicum

With all the tomatoes floating around this summer – yes, as far as I am concerned it’s still summer, and no one tell me otherwise – our thoughts naturally turn to the classic accompaniment to them, the beautifully aromatic basil leaf.

Flavour Profile and Growing Basil:

There are a few different kinds of basil, with the most common being sweet basil, with it’s characteristic bushy deep green leaves. The others are Thai basil, Lemon basil and Purple basil. These varieties all have their own flavours. Sweet basil starts off with a slight peppery note, and finishes with it’s distinctive sweet anise essence. Purple basil is more savoury, while Thai basil is extremely characteristic with it’s anise notes and is sometimes called Pepper basil. Lemon basil, which is harder to find obviously has citrus notes to it.

Basil is native to Asia and Africa, and is widely cultivated in Europe and North America as a culinary herb. Indian Hindus will usually have a small ‘holy basil’ or ‘tulsi’ plant in their houses, as it’s considered sacred. Tulsi, is drier and less lush than sweet basil, and is used more for medicinal purposes, rather than culinary ones.

Basil is a finicky herb to grow and needs a lot of sun. Plant your seeds indoors and transfer them outdoors once it is hot enough and no chance of frost. Harvest leaves regularly to encourage growth, pinching off the centre stems to prevent flowering. You can also grow your basil indoors. Check out our FBC tutorial on growing herbs inside your house for more information.

Storage and Use of Basil:

Basil is best used fresh off the plant and is a staple in Italian and other kinds of cuisine. If you cannot bring your plants indoors, you can harvest basil by pinching off large bunches of leaves, drying them quickly and freezing them. This helps preserve them for the best flavour. You can also dry the leaves completely (you can even dehydrate them) and store them in airtight jars.

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One of the most popular dishes that uses basil is obviously pesto. Fresh basil leaves are blended with pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, with parmesan and pecorino cheese and served with pasta. In Genovese cooking, pasta, new potatoes and crisp green beans are boiled together and served with fresh basil pesto. There are also several other dishes starring basil, including the famous Margherita pizza.

Along with it’s culinary use, basil is also widely used in traditional medicine, including Ayurveda, where it is used as a remedy for colds and fevers. Basil tea is also used to relieve chest congestion, and it is used as a home freshener in many countries. Basil oils are also used in perfumeries, and in the cosmetic industry for skin care supplements.

And finally, did you know that basil seeds are also edible? They are used as coolers in many countries, and expand and go fuzzy when soaked in cold water and drinks, especially in the Indian classic, falooda.

Have a spice you’d like to see profiled?  Let us know in the comments.

For more Spice Box profiles, check out Exploring Cassia BarkDiscovering Black Pepper or the whole Spice Box lineup

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