Basil is a member of the mint family. Native to India, Africa, and Asia, basil is now cultivated extensively throughout much of the world. In China the medicinal use of basil can be traced back more than 3000 years.
The name “basil” is derived from the Greek word for “royal”, indicating the ancient culture’s high respect for the herb.
Basil has many of the same medicinal effects as other members of the mint family. It is used as a digestive aid, a mild sedative, and for the treatment of headaches. The herb is still used in China for spasms of the intestinal tract, kidney ailments, and poor circulation.
There are many different varieties of basil:
- Sweet basil: The most widely grown, popular basil, renowned for its use in Italian dishes. Commonly sold dried in supermarkets. Has a licorice-clove flavor.
- Bush or Greek basil: Has a strong aroma but mild flavor, so it can be substituted for sweet basil. Forms a compact bush with small leaves and grows well in a pot.
- Thai basil: Has an anise-licorice flavor and is commonly used in Thai and Southeast Asian dishes.
- Cinnamon basil: Native to Mexico. Has a cinnamon-like flavor and scent. Commonly served with legumes or spicy, stir-fried vegetables.
- Lettuce basil: Features large, wrinkled, soft leaves with a licorice-like flavor. Works well in salads or tossed with tomatoes and olive oil.
Because basil is generally used in small quantities, the only substantial nutrient it provides is vitamin K. Because basil leaves are high in vitamin K, which helps blood clot, high intakes could interfere with blood-thinning drugs, such as warfarin.
Preliminary studies suggest sweet basil may:
- Reduce memory loss associated with stress and aging
- Reduce depression related to chronic stress
- Reduce stroke damage and support recovery, whether given before or right after a stroke
- Improve fasting blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides
- Reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension
- Relax blood vessels and thin your blood, similar to aspirin
- Protect against aspirin’s damage to your gut, particularly preventing ulcers
- Prevent certain cancers, including of the breast, colon and pancreas
- Increase mental alertness when inhaled as aromatherapy
- Inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause dental decay
- Improve food safety, such as if integrated into food packaging by manufacturers
- Provide an alternative to antibiotics for infectious diseases, including combating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria
- Repel insects, such as mosquitos and ticks
The basil commonly used in supplements and herbal tea is holy basil, sometimes called tulsi. It is added to some Thai dishes because of its distinct flavor.
Holy basil has a long history of use for many ailments, including many of those listed above. When 60 people with type 2 diabetes took 250 mg of holy basil extract alongside a diabetes drug each day before breakfast and dinner for three months, they had an 18% decrease in average blood sugar compared to those only taking the drug. Avoid holy basil if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Animal studies suggest that holy basil supplements may negatively affect sperm and trigger contractions in pregnancy. Risks during breastfeeding are unknown.
How to Buy
Though fresh basil has a stronger flavor, dried basil is less expensive and available year round. Look for crisp, vibrant green leaves with no signs of decay. For both fresh or dried be sure it is from an organic source as these herbs are less likely to have been irradiated. Dried herbs will last for about six months in a sealed glass container in a cool, dark, dry place.
Sweet basil is most widespread, but you may find other varieties at farmers markets.
Alternately, try growing your own. You can grow basil anywhere with nighttime temperatures above 60℉ (15.5℃) for at least two months. Basil is sensitive to cold and likes sun exposure all day. The plant can also be grown indoors and will last about a year if you prune it regularly to prevent flowering.
You can cultivate basil from a seed planted in dirt or a stem cut from another plant that you put in water until roots start to grow. Basil will thrive in a garden or patio pot that drains well.
How to Store
Harvest basil leaves as you need them, but don’t pluck them from your plants. To encourage proper growth, cut the stem toward the bottom so that only two to four leaves remain on the plant.
Put fresh basil stems in a jar with tap water to keep the leaves fresh for a few days. It’s debatable whether you should refrigerate fresh basil, as cold temperatures can discolor the leaves. I like to rinse the leaves and store in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp towel. The herb will last for up to a week.
Basil can also be frozen, whole or chopped, in airtight containers. Fresh basil can be chopped or blended with olive oil and stored in the fridge or freezer. Frozen basil is good for three months.
If you have a lot of fresh basil, you can dry the leaves and store them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Avoid crumbling the leaves until you need them, as this helps retain their essential oils, aroma and flavor.
How to Cook
Basil gives zest to tomato dishes, salads, zucchini, eggplant, meat seasonings, stuffing, soups, sauces and more.
Pesto is a creamy, green sauce and is one of basil’s most popular uses. It’s typically made from crushed basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, olive oil and pine nuts, though dairy-free options are also available. Try it as a dip or sandwich spread. Combine one cup fresh basil with 2-3 cloves of garlic and 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a food processor. Add 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts.
Basil complements other herbs and spices such as garlic, marjoram, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary and sage.
If you have fresh basil, take only the leaves — not the stem. It’s generally best to add fresh basil at the final step of cooking because heat can diminish the flavor and bright green color.
If a recipe calls for fresh basil but you only have dried, use just 1/3 of the measurement, as dried is more concentrated.