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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!