The Beauty of Basil

Caprese salad: mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

The provocative fragrance, the striking flavors, the ornamental leaves and flowers--there is no more beloved and useful herb than culinary basil. No chef worth a good reputation will deny basil its royal position in the kitchen.

The basil most of us know is sweet basil. The leaves are fairly large, smooth, glossy, pure green and the tips of the leaves curl under just a bit. Sweet basil may also be labeled as Common, Italian, Neapolitan, Italian Neapolitan, and perhaps, Large or Lettuce Leaf Basil.

Other popular culinary basils are Genoa, Mammoth, Lemon, Lime, Cinnamon, Thai and Spicy Basil--the list goes on. There are more defining descriptors such as "Toscano," "Napoletano," or French "Marseille"--indicating a purer and more expensive strain from Tuscany, Naples, Marseille and elsewhere.

At least one of the red or purple basils should be in your collection: Red Rubin, Red Opal, Red Bordeaux, Dark Opal, Purple Bush, Purple Ruffles and Italian Violetto, among others. Red basils appearing a bit anemic in color are considered anemic in taste also, and are relegated to being "just red." The deeper reds/purples, with defining names, are purer of flavor and, of course, costlier.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Kathy Bosin adds, "This article started making me very hungry! Basil really is one of the most wonderful garden plants, and anyone can grow it without difficulty."

Scent, Appearance, and Flavor

Cluster pots of differing basils near a patio. On a warm summer night, sit back, close your eyes and breathe in--you'll think you're on a villa terrace in the heart of Tuscany. The fragrance is simply intoxicating.

Mixing the colors and leaf shapes creates a stunning garden. If your window view looks out onto a healthy and robust basil, you won't tire of it.

And then there's the taste. There's nothing else like it. Most of the sweet basils, including the reds and purples, are similar in taste; some will be more intense, some subtler, some sweeter, some spicier. Some have a definite anise or licorice taste. Lime, lemon, cinnamon and chocolate exhibit those flavors.

Cooking with Basil

The culinary uses are many, pesto sauce being the most famous (basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, olive oil and parmesan processed in a blender). Genoa basil is particularly prized for pesto. Tuck whole leaves between layers of a sandwich and it's a gourmet lunch; put it in anything with tomatoes--slices of summer tomatoes and basil leaves topped with fresh mozzarella and drizzled with good olive oil. Divine! Try a sprinkle of lemon basil on a salad. Basil turns a marinara into a simply unforgettable sauce; add it to pasta and sliced chicken, eggs, or any savory dish.

Harvest by removing individual leaves or pinching off tips with one or two sets of leaves. Once in the kitchen, leaves bruise easily and can turn dark.

Just before adding basil to a dish, stack the individual leaves on top of each other. Roll them from the long side and snip with kitchen shears. Toss the strands with the rest of the ingredients immediately.

Darkened leaves can still be used in sautes and sauces. Discard stems or use them in soups. Putting the stems in water and placing the sprigs in the fridge will keep them for a few days, but in general, fresh basil does not like refrigerators.

TIP: Kathy suggests, "Keep cut basil in a glass of water on your kitchen counter, readily accessible as you cook. It can last for a week on your counter, if you don't eat it first!"

Growing Basil

Basil is easy it to grow. Grow it outside if possible, but it's an incredible indoor plant, as well. Basil-lovers grow it both ways for a year-round supply.

If you haven’t grown basil before, purchase a few differing varieties already potted. Be sure to include the traditional sweet basil, Genoa and lemon and maybe a red rubin, which retains its deep red color even when dried. Buying a variety for your first season makes growing a snap, and you can effortlessly immerse yourself in the heady "world" of basil. Grow from seed the next season, if you prefer

If you live in a tropical climate, basil is a perennial. If not, it’s an annual. Plant after danger of frost, about mid-May, and it will grow abundantly until the Fall frost. Prune plants every 2 to 3 weeks; this keeps the plants bushy and abundant. Pinch flower buds immediately. You can also cut the whole plant back 6 to 8 inches from the ground just before flowering.

Plant from seeds or buy small potted basils and transfer to the garden or pots. To protect the flavor and fragrance, fertilize lightly, and only a couple of times during the growing season. Mid-season, if plants stop producing, cut them back (about 1/3) and lightly fertilize to stimulate growth.

Outdoors, basil demands only 3 things: lots of sun, lots of water and well-drained soil. While it is a thirsty plant, it does not like standing-water on its leaves. Water it at soil level. If your yard or garden has an irrigation system, potting may be best. Pots can be brought indoors to continue growing during colder temperatures if you place them in a bright, sunny and warm spot.

Indoors, basil thrives on sunny windowsills and cabinet tops. Mist the leaves sparingly for extra moisture. Remember, it likes water. Water at least once daily and probably more. If watering is needed more than once a day, do it as early as possible, allowing the soil to dry before cooler evening temps arrive.