A fragrant, tender herb, basil has a distinct flavor that includes hints of licorice, cloves, and mint. Sweet Genovese basil, with its large, satiny green and fragrant leaves is the most familiar variety. Used widely in Mediterranean cooking, it's often used to flavor tomato sauce for pasta. Indeed, this summertime favorite perhaps pairs most famously with tomatoes. Thai basil has small pointy leaves and purple stems (and flowers), and its heady, sweet peppery aroma has strong notes of anise and licorice, perfect for Asian curries. Opal basil has striking, dark-purple leaves, and a milder flavor than sweet basil, with hints of cinnamon, anise, mint, and clove. It's a beautiful accent to salads or other uncooked summer dishes, either in addition to or in place of sweet basil. Other varieties of basil, which you may see at farmer's markets, include cinnamon, lemon, lime, dwarf bush, and miniature purple.
1/2 oz. basil leaves = about 1/2 cup lightly packed
Choose basil that looks freshly picked with no wilting or blackened leaves.
This sun-loving herb is vigorous in the garden but once cut, it's fragile and susceptible to bruising, so careful handling is a must. 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 reduces the bruising.
Keep 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 heavy-duty 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.