Basil: A Primer

by The Gilded Fork

by Donna Zotter

Common Basil
This variety of basil is the most commonly used in cooking, and comes in a number of varieties.  The most widely available in the markets is Sweet Basil or Lettuce Leaf Basil. Characterized by their large, sometimes thick leaves and underlying sweetness on the palate, these varieties are ideal for salad, and the Genovese is particularly lovely when used in pesto or a seasoning and garnish.  The characteristic fullness of aroma and flavor is reminiscent of mint, spice, citrus, and even anise.

Bush Basil
Shorter varieties, commonly referred to as “Bush Basils,” include the popular Spicy Globe, and are characterized by small, narrow leaves and a less pungent aroma.  Because the flavor is delicate, these varieties do not stand up well to long cooking processes.  We recommend they be used in their raw form, or incorporated into a final product as a finishing component.

Opal Basil
Grown for their distinctive purple, ornamental leaves, opal basils are less hearty than their green counterparts.  Rubin Opal Basil, introduced in the early 1990s, was created to consistently produce dark-colored leaves throughout its garden life.  Typically grown as an ornamental herb, it is nevertheless introduced into culinary use, usually as an edible garnish, and little more.

Flavored Basil
Of course there are the uniquely “flavored” or aromatic basils, such as lemon and cinnamon.  Each is distinctive and a worthy addition to those recipes that call for such a flavor.  Either would be a nice substitute (if not a somewhat interesting flavor enhancement) in the Basil and Orange Ice Cream recipe; but consider also using these as a garnish to summer beverages and cocktails, or desserts.

Exotic Basil
Finally, there are the “exotics” such as Thai or Cuban basil.  Each is grown for the distinctive properties consistent with their native cuisines, and can typically be sourced in ethnic markets.

Notes on Storage

Kept at a cool temperature of about 60° F in a perforated bag, your harvested (or purchased) basil should last at least one full week.  In the humidity, or cooler/warmer temperatures, your hold time is as short as one day.  Alternatively, a few fresh cut stems in a small container of water will also maintain your precious herb.  Do be sure, however, to change the water frequently, if not daily, and add a spritz of lemon juice to keep bacteria at bay during the hot summer months.

Photo: Kelly Cline

Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.

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