Basil

By EAT SMARTER
Updated on 30. Apr. 2020
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​​As Italian foods have become a staple of the U.S. diet, so has this ultimate of Italian herbs, basil. Now available in most markets yearround, basil is an incredibly delicious, pungent herb that of course goes great with Italian dishes as well as an array of other cuisines.

basil

Basil...

  • ...supports digestion. Basil promotes the production of bile in the body and thus supports digestion. It is also said that basil can alleviate the symptoms of biliary disorders.
  • ...supports vision. The high content of carotenoids in basil can improve vision and is even said to prevent eye diseases in diabetics.
  • ...facilitates breastfeeding. Certain substances in basil stimulate the milk flow in nursing mothers.
  • ...can act as a natural pain reliever. Basil contains an enzyme that works in the same way as ibuprofen.
  • ...helps protect your cells. Basil is rich in polyphenols and flavonoids - secondary plant compounds that combat harmful free radicals and help keep body cells healthy. These antioxidants also provide effective protection against inflammation.
  • ...soothes your stomach. Basil can alleviate everything from stomach cramps to gas thanks to its essential oils and tanning agents.
  • ...has an antibacterial effect. In Indian Ayurveda, basil is used to prevent colds and flu. In the Middle Ages, the herb was used to treat fever.
  • ...contains essential oils. Basil leaves contain a wealth of essential oils such as tarragol, eugenol and thymol, which can help heal various ailments.

What You Should Know About Basil

Whether on Pizza Margherita, in the classic pesto, in "Insalata Caprese" (mozzarella with tomatoes) or in tomato sauce, basil is an essential ingredient in many Italian dishes. Fresh basil leaves are much more flavorful than the dried herb, and exude the typical sweet and spicy aroma. Basil has a particularly intense scent in summer, and its leaves taste best when harvested shortly before and during the flowering period.

Basil comes in many colors and shapes, from green to red and from smooth to curly, however classic basil with green, smooth leaves is by far the most popular variety.

Basil has been cultivated for thousands of years, first harvested in Egypt some 4,000 years ago. From there it first reached Central Europe, and later ancient Rome in the 12th century.

In antiquity, basil was used for many different things, including love potions, medicinal cures and, of course, cooking.

Basil is also an important ingredient in many herbal liqueurs, including the French Chartreuse, as well as mixed herb seasonings.

Origins

Basil originates from East India and Iran.

Seasonality

Basil can be harvested in the garden from June to September, or all year round in a greenhouse.

Flavor

Basil tastes very spicy, slightly hot and fresh.

Varieties

Around 60 species of basil are cultivated worldwide with individual looks and aromas: from red and violet, light and dark green, small and large-leaved to curly and smooth. Sometimes basil smells like allspice, cloves, cinnamon or aniseed. It can also smell flowery or even hot and sweet.

Find all our basil recipes here.

How Healthy is Basil?

Basil owes its intense hot-sweet fragrance to the richness of its essential oils, especially tarragon, eugenol and thymol. Together with polyphenols and flavonoids (secondary plant substances) they can provide various healing effects. For instance, the substances can combat harmful free radicals and help to keep the body cells healthy. Manganese and copper, two trace elements present in basil, also help the body to neutralise harmful free radicals.

Basil’s essential oils, including linalool and cineol, soothe an upset stomach and can alleviate biliary issues by relieving stomach cramps and calming the digestive tract.There is evidence basil has antibacterial as well as anti-inflammatory properties. Enzymes in basil are  similar to those found in active ingredients such in ibuprofen, and explain why basil might have been considered a natural remedy in the Middle Ages, especially for fever. Basil is also a great source of potassium, a vital mineral that is found in every cell of the body. Among other things, it is involved in the contraction of muscle cells.

Dried basil is not a great substitute for fresh leaves, even in an emergency, because it tastes very little like its fresh counterpart and contains almost none of its valuable ingredients.

Basil Nutritional Info (100 g)  
Calories 47
Protein 3.1 g
Fat 0.8 g
Carbohydrates 5.1 g
Fiber 3.1 g


Shopping and Cooking Tips

Shopping

If you can, look out for basil that has been grown fresh in a field, instead of potted. The flavor and smell is more intense, especially when purchased during the summer months. 

Of course, potted basil is still delicious. It also has the advantage that you can keep it on the balcony or on the windowsill for quite a while and harvest it over many seasons.

Storage

If you purchase basil in a bunch, just rinse, shake dry, put it in a freezer bag and then put it in the vegetable compartment of the fridge.

If you potted fresh basil, ensure the heat-loving herb is getting plenty of light and sun. A tenth of the pot volume is ideal as a daily amount of water. 

Preparation

Many dishes utilize whole basil leaves, which just require a quick rinse and drying before they can be consumed. If you’re using fresh basil from a pot, it’s best not to pluck each leaf individually, but instead cut off the entire stems above the leaf axis. 

If your recipe calls for cut or chopping basil, use a sharp knife and cut right before serving, otherwise the herb will lose some of its flavor. You can also tear the leaves apart to give a rustic look.

What To Make With Basil

Growing your own basil in a pot in the kitchen is a great and easy way to enjoy the herb. Try these tips for growing your own basil at home:

Remove fallen, dried and dark leaves and broken shoots after purchase and make sure to prune regularly.

The pot needs a bright and sunny place, but also protection in hot weather. It is best to place the basil in the shade during the hottest hours of the day.

Better than watering: place the pot in a bowl of water every two to three days and let the soil "fill up" for 15 to 20 minutes. Then let excess water drip off. If the sun shines for long periods of time or if it is hot, the basil will need to be replenished more often; then you should water it at least once a day.

Another preparation tip: never cook basil. The heating process depletes basil of many  of its essential oils and thus lessens the taste. So always add the leaves in their entirety or chopped up fresh at the end of cooking.

If you want to have an aromatic oil, do as the Italians do: put well-dried fresh basil leaves in a screw glass, salt them and fill them up with olive oil. Leave it in the refrigerator for three to four weeks, then pour it through a sieve into a bottle. Keep the oil cool and protected from light.  It tastes delicious with pasta, salad, and a variety of other dishes!

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