Know Your Basil

By Dale Odorizzi, Lanark County Master Gardeners

When you buy basil in the spice department of the grocery store, you get a package of greenish-black flakes. When you look for basil seeds in a seed catalogue or basil seedlings at a nursery, you are faced with so many choices. What are the differences? Which one should you select? There are many varieties and all of them are delicious. The following are some of the common kinds:

  • Genovese is basil from Genoa, Italy. It is said to be the best for making traditional Italian dishes and is terrific in pesto. It has large, aromatic leaves that are more pointed than sweet basil and have a spicier sweet taste that is delicious in all vegetable dishes.
  • Bush basil can be purple or green and has white flowers and edible seeds. The tiny leaves smell like a combination of licorice, cloves and cinnamon and are used in classic recipes with tomatoes and lamb. The leaves also can be used to make a cup of tea.
  • Sweet basil is the most commonly used. It has bright green, large oval leaves that are sweet and peppery and are perfect for all types of tomato dishes.
  • Opal basil is similar to sweet basil. It has deep purple-red leaves and flowers and grows in sunny climates. It smells of cloves and its oils are used in perfume making. Its vivid colour makes it a striking garnish.
  • Thai basil is essential to cuisine from south-east Asia. It has light green leaves and dark red flowers. It has a mild licorice taste and shines in green and red curries, Asian soups, stir-fries and noodle dishes.
  • Lemon basil at first tastes like sweet basil but has a mild scent and aftertaste of citrus fruit. They are a perfect seasoning for cream sauces, fish, chicken dishes and tea.

After picking, wrap the unwashed leaves in a damp paper towel, slip into a plastic bag and refrigerate. Before using, wash the leaves and pat dry with a paper towel. Shred the basil just before using as it darkens quickly after cutting. To freeze, wash and dry leaves. Lay them flat on wax paper. Cover with wax paper and slip into a plastic bag. Freeze up to a month. To keep frozen basil longer, whirl herbs with a bit of oil in a food processor and then freeze in ice cube trays. When frozen, put herb ice cubes in a bag for use as needed. When you take your “Herb Cube” from the freezer, it will keep for about 1 week in the Refrigerator. Once you have used your ice cube tray to freeze herbs, do not use again for making regular ice cubes as they will taste of the herb. To dry Herbs, cut off branches, tie together in small bundles and hang upside down in an airy place until it dries. You can also use a dehydrator. Once dry store in airtight container.

Basil grows better, the more you pick it. It will keep growing. It is also believed that basil planted near tomatoes enhances the flavour of tomatoes. Don’t let the number of varieties keep you from selecting at least one type.