Spicy Sunday: What is Basil?

Created January 26, 2017
Basil is an old school aromatic herb belonging to the mint family and cultivated for its leaves. MORE+ LESS-

Looking for a cooking edge? Try basil.

I've been asked a simple question a million times by people all over the world. The answer can make the difference between a successful life full of great food and a mediocre life full of flavor-challenged vittles. That question is "What is basil?"

Basil Basics

Basil is an old school aromatic herb belonging to the mint family and cultivated for its leaves. Why cultivated for its leaves, you ask? Because the leaves can be used as seasoning that improves Italian dishes.

Basil Dishes

The number of dishes that can be jazzed up with a little basil are almost endless. It will improve the taste of your pasta dishes so much, in fact, that you'll want to put it in everything. This is probably a mistake. Start with Italian dishes—marinara sauce, pesto, tortellini salad and pizza, for example. Once you have the basic basil dishes down, then branch out and experiment. Basil can also play a starring role in Thai food, for example.

Basil Varieties

We've answered the question "What is basil?" Now you want to know where to get it and what type to get. As with all spices and seasonings, you can grab some basil at the spice rack in any grocery store, but beware, not all basil is of the high quality you deserve. Spice rack basil will consist of dried basil leaves and can be used in sauces for flavoring. For maximum basil flavor, however, you're going to want fresh basil, perfect for sauces and any dish involving tomatoes or fresh vegetables. Fresh basil can be picked up in the produce section. Avoid basil leaves that look tired or are brown around the edges.

Basil Mastery

Once you've experienced the joy of basil, you're going want to have fresh basil handy year round. You'll notice that fresh basil is much more expensive than dried basil and must be used within a few days of purchase or it will turn into a mushy brown leafy glob. Don't fret. There is a solution: plant some basil in a small pot, keep it in a sunny window and spice up that sauce any time you want without having to gallop to the grocery store.

Basil Preservation

When growing basil, I make sure not to leave it in the sun too long – it will get scorched. You can preserve fresh basil by sticking it in boiling water for a couple of seconds, sticking it in ice water, pat drying it with a paper towel, cramming it in a zip lock bag and storing it in the freezer.

Basil Legend

In addition to adding flavor to some of your favorite foods, basil, according to legend, is a magical cure against the look, breath or even the bite of the basilisk. Good to know in case you're ever attacked by this mythological half-dragon, half-lizard creature while cooking.