Spice Up Your Meals With These 6 Different Types of Basil

Basil has long been used in cooking and for better health. Being among the most popular of herbs, basil is used in Italian foods, salad dressings, and drinks, as well as medicines such as cough syrups and other natural elixirs.

Cooking with Different Types of Basil | Foodal.com
With over 160 varieties, basil offers a surprising assortment of flavors.

Basil has over 160 different cultivars or types, with flavors ranging from bold and spicy to mild and sweet, each with the ability to grant a given dish its own distinctive signature.

Pesto, with origins dating back to the Romans, has become a household favorite, and one of the most common dishes prepared with basil as a main ingredient today.

Choosing which type of basil to use is always up to individual tastes, but there are certain varieties that give pesto a traditional flavor, as well as other types that will serve to give a homemade pesto a taste that’s unique to the person preparing it.

You can use Foodal’s basic pesto recipe as a basis to develop your own original flavor profile.

Our Favorite Six Basil Varieties include:

  1. Italian Large Leaf
  2. Sweet
  3. Thai
  4. Red Rubin
  5. Lemon
  6. Cinnamon

1. Italian Large Leaf

Italian Large Leaf Basil is the most commonly used in pesto. This variety offers a strong flavor for a robust fullness.

When using fresh basil to prepare pesto, crush the leaves first to release the flavor, then add them to the olive oil. This can be left to soak overnight if you wish, to fully infuse the oil with herbal flavor. Crushed basil seeds can be added to the oil as well, for an added flavor boost.

When you are ready to prepare the sauce, use the basil-flavored olive oil to mix in your garlic, grated cheese, and toasted pine nuts.

Italian Large Leaf Basil | Foodal.com
Italian Large Leaf forms the basis of most pesto recipes.

In the case of using dried basil leaves, soak them in water or olive oil over night to revive them. Once any herb has been dried, the flavor will be more mild than that offered by fresh varieties. Once the leaves are moist again, prepare the sauce as you would normally.

2. Sweet

Sweet Basil is also rather common, and a favorite for pesto. The flavor of these leaves is mild and sweet, and it appeals to most palates when used sparingly.

Too many Sweet Basil leaves will overpower other flavors that you are trying to bring out in your pesto. As always, if you like to make pesto the wsay I do, soaking your leaves overnight in olive oil before preparing your pesto will give you the best flavor.

Sweet Basil | Foodal.com
This sweet variety is great for everyday use.

3. Thai

To add a spicier kick to your pesto, try Thai Basil. This Thai variety is actually a cultivar of Sweet Basil that has been selected for a slightly spicy anise or licorice taste. The very bright flavor is great for those who seek to liven up their pesto and make it dance on the palate.

Its purple flowers and stems also make it readily identifiable.

Thai Basil | Foodal.com
If you like the taste of anise, try this Thai variety.

When using Thai Basil, be sure to balance the amount of parsley used to match that of the basil to eliminate any aftertaste, should you use too much.

First-time users sometimes overflavor their pesto with the Thai variety, leaving only the taste of the basil with its strong anise kick.

If you are new to using this particular variety in your sauce, go gently for the first few uses, until you get a feel for the flavoring. Remember to taste as you go along!

4. Red Rubin

Red Rubin Basil has a flavor that’s great for those in search of a more intriguing taste. These wonderful purple leaves add color, and a clove-like flavor to your dishes.

Be careful when using it in a pesto – too much will destroy the sauce, and too little will just leave a bitter aftertaste.

Red Ruben and Big Leaf Basil | Foodal.com
Red Ruben growing next to Big Leaf – it’s a great contrast to incorporate in a dish that uses whole leaves, and in your kitchen garden.

If you haven’t used this type before, experiment with it in your pesto and other dishes. You may not care for the flavor in pesto, but love it in a pork dish. Red Rubin is not for everyone.

5. Lemon

Lemon Basil tastes just like it sounds – lemony! The aroma and flavor is pure, clean, and crisp, and it works wonderfully in sauces. This variety gives a little bit of a lift to traditional pesto, and a light zing to the taste buds.

Lemon Basil | Foodal.com
Add a touch of lemon to your dishes without using an actual lemon!

This type compliments other basils beautifully, so mix it with Italian large leaf or Red Rubin, for a signature taste that’s uniquely your own.

6. Cinnamon

Cinnamon Basil also lives up to its name, smelling and tasting a bit like cinnamon, and slightly warming. When used lightly, Cinnamon Basil will give your pesto a lift in directions you never thought of before.

This type can also be mixed with other varieties to achieve distinctive flavors, or it can be used alone to grant a wholly unique flavor to the dish.

Cinnamon Basil
Cinnamon Basil can usually be identified (without tasting) by its semi-lobed leaves.

Regardless of whether you are a beginning cook or an experienced chef, a basic understanding of the herbs and spices you cook with is essential.

And, understanding that there are several versions available of any given herb or spice is equally essential.

To truly achieve a distinctive style of cooking, you must experiment with all of the flavors you can find. Mix them, crush them, blend them, and learn to cook with them.

Perfect in pesto, there are countless of other ways to use this floral herb! For a fun deviation from pasta sauce, try our water infused with strawberry, lemon, basil, or our sweet strawberry basil jam ice cream.

What will you season with basil? And what kind will you use? Let us know in the comments!

About Lynne Jaques

Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!

16 thoughts on “Spice Up Your Meals With These 6 Different Types of Basil”

  1. Here in the UK, we only tend to see the large leaf variety of basil so it’s interesting to see that there are plenty of other varieties. It is really easy to grow and there’s nothing better than using your own leaves in a dish.

  2. I never knew there were different types …i know i’m being treated with basil and sage, among other herbs but i don’t know the specific variety being used…i better ask in my next visit. As for cooking with the different varieties, i have yet to venture out in that field but will do so soon 😉

  3. Oh wow! This is great! I didn’t even know there was more than one type of basil plant. I think I’ve always been buying the Italian Large Leaf, which goes great on my home-made pizzas, but the other types, especially the Thai kind looks fun to try! I also definitely want to try the Lemon variety. If I use that, maybe I won’t have to buy lemons! Two birds with one stone!

    • Jen,

      Lemon grass is often hard to find and if I’m preparing a Thai inspired dish that calls for it, I’ll often substitute the lemon grass for the lemon basil. I have it both in a dried form (from last years patio garden) and from one lonely indoor plant that I keep in my small herb collection in the kitchen/dining room window.

  4. I’ve come to the conclusion I really have to start exploring more varieties of fresh herbs. I’m always trying to make the same recipes but differently & I think herbs are key to that. Do you think dried versions of these could be used to the same extent when slow cooking? I’ve noticed, unless I’m making sauces, my herbs don’t last as long as I would like. I’ve done everything from freezing to attempting to let continue to grow in mason jars of water.

  5. Basil is one of my favorite things in the world. I plan to start growing a small indoor herb collection, so I’m glad I stumbled upon this post. I knew of a few different types, like sweet basil, but I wasn’t aware of some of the others. Lemon basil sounds especially intriguing. Maybe once I get the hang of caring for one basil plant, I could experiment with one or two more.

  6. I love basil, it’s like one of my top five spices for sure. But I never knew there was so many! I knew about Thai subtype since that’s what my stepdad uses for pho, but I always thought the sweet and Italian varieties were the same thing. I just thought it was like sweeter like how Italian oregano is sweeter than Mexican oregano. The red one looks super interesting to me though, but I have no idea where I’d get it!

  7. Each year when I’m shopping the green house market, I find myself confronted with a section dedicated entirely to basil. I ponder whether I should purchase different varieties, or stick to what I know to be traditional – Italian and sweet. Last year I did finally decide to purchase two different varieties – lemon and thai. However, being unsure what to do with them (I really didn’t even try to investigate – which is shameful on my part), I grew them but let them die when the season was over.

    This article really helps give me some ideas and I think instead of letting some die off outside this year, I will bring them in with the rest of my year round windowsill herbs. Thanks so much for the insight and clearing things up!

  8. I did not realize there were so many type of Basil out there! I love adding fresh basil to my pasta dishes, I love the flavor it gives. I will definitely keep an eye out for the different varieties, as well as look into them to grow in my garden!

  9. Ahhh basil! I absolutely love the flavour and I’ve actually been looking for exactly this information. Been very curious about the varieties world over and their uses. I’ve only ever come across the Italian large leaf and the Thai variety that’s on your list. The other one I do know is this one – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocimum_tenuiflorum. I’m not sure if this is on your list under a different name, but we use it a lot here in India. It has high medicinal value. Always wondered if the same strain was used elsewhere for cooking purposes. I’ve read reports of it in Thai cuisine but have never actually seen it used.

  10. You know I never really put all that much effort into spices until we moved a while ago and were living next door to our current neighbors, who grow their own herbs and often give us some. It really makes a huge difference in the taste, and since then I have not gone back. Basil is certainly one of my favorite and most versatile to use, and I love it on eggs in the morning. Thanks for the share.

  11. I use my Thai basil whenever I make pho, or any Asian dish that calls for it. I am Sicilian so, yes, I ALWAYS have sweet basil also, plus hubby added the cinnamon type this year. I keep a container of the fresh herb on my kitchen counter, to smell nice during the summer months! The Thai variety is delish with veggies!!

  12. I’m growing italian large-leaf (unfortunately overshaded by my tomatoes), Thai, purple and another variety called Greek Columnar Basil, which has a strong clove overtones.

    I let the flowers go too long on the Thai and purple basils, so I made a pesto with them. Very mild, if you use flowers for pesto.

    Curious if you know of/have used the Greek Columnar basil. It grows tall and compact and rarely flowers

    • Wow, it sounds like you have a really nice mix of cultivars growing this year, Timothy. And I love your idea to use the flowers in a pesto! Now I’m imagining even more edible flowers that could be thrown in… wouldn’t a few garlic chive blossoms make a really nice addition?

      One of the Greek cultivars is included in this roundup of favorite basil varieties on our sister site, Gardener’s Path. Please give it a read. This isn’t a type that I’ve grown myself, but it sounds like it’s perfect for containers or small spaces, with a really nice flavor.

  13. A neighbor gave me a basil plant (no idea of variety). I made pesto for the first time in my life using a mortar and pestle. The end product was spicy and we aren’t into spicy. Is there any way to save it?

    • How lovely! Do you think it was the pungent fresh garlic that gave it the spicy flavor? Water-stressed basil can also sometimes have a flavor that’s more bitter than sweet. Try adding more cheese to your pesto, stirring in some sour cream or yogurt, or adding something acidic like lemon juice to balance out the flavors. You can find more tips for taming heat in this guide.


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