Basil, the King of HerbsBy Diana Wind, RD (wind)
June 23, 2010
(This article was originally published on September 2, 2009. It is best viewed in Firefox )
Basil is a wonderfully aromatic herb that enhances and adds flavor to many foods. The essential oils and flavor varies, depending on the species and cultivar. Most culinary, cultivated basils are from the genus Ocimum. Basil has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to India, Asia and Africa.
Italian basil from our South Jersey garden (USDA zone 6b), is usually ready for harvest by mid-to-late August. And right on schedule, we recently picked and processed our basil harvest into Pesto to preserve the harvest. The pesto is frozen in small, 16 ounce containers, so we have a source of our homegrown, 'fresh' basil all year long.
Some people swear that basil's flavor is best when picked before it goes to flower. They say picking basil after flowering causes a bitter flavor. This could be true, because as we know, people experience and perceive flavors differently depending on their genetic makeup.
At our home, we don't get hung up about letting basil go to flower. No one in our household can perceive a flavor difference whether the basil is picked before, during or after it flowers. We diligently try to pinch off the blooms and cut the stems when the flowers first appear. Doing so enables the plants energy to focus more on leaf, rather than seed, production.
As the growing season moves along, like clockwork -- every year -- after many sunny and hot basil loving days, there is a point when bloom pinching becomes impossible to maintain and Mother Nature's blooming demands win! And frankly, I love basil blooms both in the garden and as cut flowers, so we usually allow our basil plants to bloom away, especially when they reach that prolific point.
Types of Basil
Basil can be grown for culinary use or as ornamental. The most popular edible basil varieties such as Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) contain pleasing blends of essential oils. Ornamental basils can be, but are not usually, harvested for eating. All basil, especially ornamental basil, is eye appealing and decorative as accents around the yard and garden.
My new favorite is African Blue Basil, a sterile hybrid cross between Camphor basil (O. kilimandscharicum) and 'Dark Opal' basil (O.basilicum). This beauty stands out in potted arrangements, especially when planted next to Chocolate Garden plants (dark toned, burgundy color). Burgundy markings in the leaves and purple flower spikes make this variety one of the most colorful basils on the market. You'll find other species and hundreds of other basil varieties too, which makes growing basil so interesting and fun.
Popular culinary basils (O.basilicum) include: Large leaf Italian, Red Rubin Basil, and 'Sweet Genovese'. Citrus basil's such as, Lemon (O.basilicum) 'Mrs Burns' or 'Sweet Dani' and Lime (O. americanum) make zesty pesto that is especially good on fish dishes.
When growing non hybrid basil plants, you have the option of letting a few plants go to seed. Seeds can be collected after the flower stems turn brown and appear dead. When that occurs, the seeds are ripe and best picked on a dry day.
To harvest the seeds, simply run your fingers along the dry stems to collect the small brown seed pods. Allow them to air dry even more in an open bowl or sheet pan for a few days or longer. To release the seeds, rub the pods between your fingers until the seeds fall out. The chaff can then be sifted off, leaving you with just the seeds, which can be stored in a cool, dry place for your next season's crop or shared in seed swaps with friends. I like to plant our seeds indoors, approximately around St. Patty's Day in March.
I was lucky to come across some authentic real Italian sweet basil seeds during a fall seed swap from Dave's Garden member and writer, Jill M. Nicolaus ('Critter'). Seed swaps are a great way to expand your gardens with new plants you may not have thought to try. I don't know the exact cultivar of Critter's Italian basil; it has the appearance of O. basilicum 'Napoletano'. Whatever it is -- with its serrated edges and quilted leaves -- it has become one of my favorites for flavor.
Basil seeds are used for their medicinal properties in Ayurvedic medicine. They are also used in Indian Falooda (Vermicelli) drinks -- referred to as Tukmaria seeds. Basil Seeds for use in drinks can be purchased in Indian specialty stores.
Dried Basil vs. Fresh
In my opinion, dried basil has an unpleasant, pungent flavor. However, some chefs and home cooks appreciate the flavor dried basil imparts to certain foods including stews, soups and pizza. There is no argument that the flavor is quite different between the two, differentiating its application and uses.
"Do you use dry basil? If so, please post a comment on how you use it."
Preserving the Harvest
To avoid the higher cost of fresh basil in the winter months, you can preserve your harvest by freezing fresh basil, as long as you don't mind the basil turning a dark, blackish color. Frozen basil leaves retain the flavor, and the dark color is harmless. A more appealing green color can shine through and the dark color can be avoided simply by coating the leaves with olive oil before freezing.
Cooking with Basil
We have the Italians and the French to thank for spreading Pesto's popularity. Pesto recipes vary depending on the regions of origin. For example, Pesto alla Genovese, made popular by Ligurian Italians in the North-west coastal region, uses basil, parsley, garlic, grated hard cheese and pine nuts; whereas, Pesto alla Siciliana from island Sicilians, uses the same ingredients with the addition of tomatoes. Pesto in Provence, France is made without the nuts.
Making and freezing pesto in large or small containers (even ice cube trays), simply can't be beat for preserving basil. Frozen pesto is convenient and accessible all year long and can be used for all sorts of recipes.
Pesto can be used to season baked fish or to flavor pasta sauces, such as classic Italian Pomodoro Sauce. Pesto adds delicious flavor to grilled vegetables and salad preparations. We also like to add pesto to one of our favorite dinner side dishes: little dumplings made of eggs, flour and salt, called Spätzle.
"What are your favorite recipes using Basil?"
In addition to classic pesto, basil can be used in soups, stews, vinegars, oils, salads, whole grain dishes, desserts, cheeses, herbal butters and tapanade. Other uses for fresh basil include some of my favorites, such as in toppings for homemade Garden Pizza, Italian Focaccia or Bruschetta.
Basil has a history rich in folklore medicine and Greek mythology. According to myth, basil offered protection from the fatal stare or bite from the evil, half-lizard/half-dragon Basilisk monster. Aside from culinary uses, basil is still used in herbal folklore remedies and incense.
Basil has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties  and was recently found to contain chicoric acid, a beneficial phenolic compound previously only reported in chicory, iceburg lettuce and Echinacea purpurea.
Herbs add nutrition to your diet too! Basil nutrition has been evaluated and analyzed by the USDA. A nutrition analysis based on data provided by the USDA nutrient database shows 4 tablespoons of fresh basil (10.6g) to contain the following:
Dietary Fiber: 0.2g (1%DV), Calcium: 18mg (2%DV), Iron: .34mg (2%DV), Magnesium: 6mg (2%DV), Potassium: 32mg (1%DV), Vitamin B6: .02mg (1%DV) and is a good source of Vitamin A: 560IU (11%DV).
Photo Credits: All photographs Copyright ©Wind. All rights reserved. Nutrition Analysis by Diana Wind.
 Youger-Comaty J., Growing, Selecting And Using Basil, Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. Accessed Aug. 25, 2009.
 University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service. Basil, King of the Herbs. Accessed Aug. 25, 2009.
 The Herb Society, Basil - Herb of the Month. Accessed Aug. 25, 2009.
 Gutierrez J, Barry-Ryan C, Bourke P, The antimicrobial efficacy of plant essential oil combinations and interactions with food ingredients; 2008, International Journal of Food Microbiology, 124, pp91-97.
 LeeJ, Scagel C, Chicoric acid found in basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) leaves; 2009, Food Chemistry, 115 pp 650-656.
Further Reading: Dave's Garden Basil related articles by Jill M. Nicolaus
- Get the most from your herbs I: Pinch, pinch, pinch!
- Get the most from your herbs II: Eat what you pinch!
- Get the most from your herbs III: Save some for later!
- Stop Pinching your Basil! Start Saving Seeds for Next Year's Basil Plants
About Basil The Herb Society of America
If you must Dry Basil, Here's How by Minnesota Gardening for beginners
Basil in History,Wikipedia names of Emperors, Generals and Religious Leaders