Basil leaves widely range in size and appearance, depending on the specific variety, and average 3 to 11 centimeters in length with an oval to lanceolate shape. The leaf’s surface is smooth, broad, and flat with prominent veining and is found in shades of bright green, dark green, and purple. The leaves also have even serrated, jagged edges and are attached to fibrous, square stems. Basil leaves are highly fragrant and offer distinct aromas of anise, clove, citrus, cinnamon, and camphor due to their rich content of essential oils. The leaves can be harvested at multiple maturity stages, bearing different flavors with each variety, and generally have an herbal, sweet, and nutty taste with fresh licorice nuances.
Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K, a nutrient that assists in faster wound healing, and is a good source of iron to build the protein hemoglobin to transport oxygen through the blood. The aromatic leaves also contain vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning; calcium to strengthen bones; manganese to stimulate protein digestion; and antioxidants to provide anti-inflammatory properties to protect against free radical damage. Basil contains an aromatic fragrance and flavor due to essential oils such as linalool, methyl chavicol, and eugenol. Each essential oil will be found in varying levels in different basil varieties, giving each type a unique flavor and scent.
Basil is an aromatic herb used whole, chopped, or crushed in a wide variety of savory and sweet preparations. The leaves are most commonly used raw and are lightly torn, tossed into green salads, chopped and mixed into grain, rice, and noodle dishes, or used as a fresh topping over pizza and pasta. Basil can also be layered on toast with creamy spreads, placed inside sandwiches, infused into oils and vinegar, or blended into sauces such as pesto. Beyond fresh applications, basil can be sauteed into eggs, stir-fried with vegetables, stirred into soups and curries, or deep-fried and served with roasted meats. The herbs can also be incorporated into sweet dishes such as sorbet or ice cream and used as a topping over shortcakes, cookies, and tarts. In addition to the leaves, basil flower buds are edible and can be mixed into salads, soups, and bowls. Basil pairs well with nuts such as pistachios, pine nuts, and walnuts; tomatoes; zucchini, corn; artichoke hearts; radishes; bell peppers; aromatics including garlic, onion, red onion, ginger, lemongrass, and shallots; fruits such as pears, strawberries, nectarines, peaches, watermelon, and mango; and other herbs such as mint, parsley, and cilantro. Basil should be used immediately for the best quality and flavor. Fresh leaves attached to stems can be placed in a glass of water and lightly covered in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to one week. Individual leaves can also be stored in a plastic bag between paper towels in the fridge for 2 to 4 days. For extended use, basil can be frozen in airtight plastic bags. Basil can also be dried and used as a spice, but much of the aroma and flavor will be lost in the drying process.
Basil is available year-round.