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Article

Make Room for Basil

Whether you grow your own or buy it, summer’s favorite herb tastes delicious in almost any dish

Fine Cooking Issue 79
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I cook with basil year-round, but I’m at my most inspired and inventive during the summer, when I can harvest it fresh from my garden. Brushing against the tender leaves releases such a waft of rich, spicy fragrance that I’m instantly moved to cook something—the hard part is deciding what to make. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Discover the many faces of basil

I’ve had a recurring summer fling with the classic Sweet Genovese basil, but there are dozens of other basil varieties, each with its own personality. These seven varieties are increasingly common, but they may have slightly different names at your nursery or farmer’s market.

Sweet Genovese basil is the most common variety. Genovese basil has large, satiny green leaves and is very fragrant. Its flavor is delicious in pasta sauces and tomato salads.
Purple Ruffles basil has large, shiny maroon leaves with distinctive frilly edges. The flavor is on the delicate side, with soft notes of licorice, sweet cinnamon, and mint. It’s happy to be an ornamental plant, but the leaves can also be used in place of sweet basil in salads.
Dwarf Bush basil, also known as Spicy Globe or Greek basil, forms a compact bush with dainty leaves; it grows well in a pot on a sunny kitchen windowsill. The leaves have a pungent peppery aroma with citrus and mint notes and make a beautiful garnish on fish or salads.
More mildly flavored than sweet basil, Dark Opal basil has dark purple, almost black, leaves with subtle notes of cinnamon, anise, mint, and clove. Use the leaves, torn or sliced, in salads or other uncooked summer dishes.
Native to Mexico, Cinnamon basil has vivid green leaves with reddish-purple stems. Sweetly fragrant with a bright, spicy, cinnamon flavor, it’s especially good with bean salads and spicy vegetable dishes.
Miniature Purple basil is a compact plant with tiny purple and green leaves on slender purple stems. Fragrant and flavorful, the leaves are delicious sprinkled on pizza and salads.
The small pointy green leaves of Thai basil are sometimes mottled with purple, and the plants have purple-red stems. Its heady, sweet peppery aroma has strong notes of anise and licorice. Use this variety in Southeast Asian dishes.

Treat basil with care

This sun-loving herb is vigorous in the garden but once cut, it’s fragile and susceptible to bruising, so careful handling and storing are a must. In my early restaurant days, on herb duty, the chef made me sharpen my knife every few minutes when cutting herbs to avoid bruising the tender leaves. Perhaps that was overkill, but I did learn to make friends with basil. I’ve heard of many ways of cutting basil to keep the edges from blackening, from slicing the leaves vertically to drawing the knife toward you as you cut. A sharp knife really does make all the difference: The less you mash, the less you’ll damage the leaf. If it’s appropriate for your recipe, and you have the time, gently tearing the leaves instead of cutting them is a nice alternative and seems to reduce blackening.

Slicing and mincing basil

 

Shredding, a.k.a. chiffonade: Stack leaves atop one another and roll into a tight tube. (For smaller leaves, bunch as tightly together as possible before cutting.) Cut the rolled leaves using a single swift, smooth stroke for each slice. The width is up to you.

Mincing: Turn the chiffonade slices (keeping them together with a gentle pinch) and make a few perpendicular cuts as wide or as narrow as you like. Don’t go back over the basil as you might when finely chopping parsley.

Storage tips

I’ve experimented with many ways of storing basil, and what works best for me is keeping the stems of cut basil in a jar of water in a cool spot in the kitchen, as if it were a bouquet of flowers. With regular changes of water, basil will keep for three to five days like this. If you must refrigerate basil, keep it in the jar and cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag (preferably a thicker type, like a heavyduty zip-top bag). If you get basil from the store that’s been refrigerated in a plastic box or bag, you should leave it in that packaging.

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