Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Basil

Photo by Jason Houston

Ah, summer. If you're lucky, and have access to a garden with verdant clumps of basil growing in it, there's nothing like its heady smell hovering in the summer heat. And for someone whose only experience with basil growing up was the dried variety, the sweet perfume and taste of its fresh leaves is incomparable and a welcome herald of warmer weather.

A Brief History

While Americans associate basil with Italian food, it is actually native to India and Southeast Asia. The earliest known reference stretches back 5,000 years to Indian Vedic texts. And true to its long history, basil comes in many varieties, from sweet basil known to many Italian recipes (Ocimum basilicum) to the "holy" basil (O. tenuiflorum) that is essential to ayurvedic medicine. Part of the mint family, other varieties include Thai (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora) and Lemon basil (O. × citriodorum).

The green leafy herb has a history steeped in folklore. In India, it was used to ward off evil and was considered sacred. Europeans in the Middle Ages thought that basil caused the spontaneous generation of scorpions and that even smelling basil could lead to an unfortunate case of scorpions in one's brain. That said, should a scorpion sting you, folklore recommends basil as a cure... which could lead to more scorpions and more stings, but there you go.

Factual Nibbles

  • Basil is also known as the king of herbs. The provenance of this is murky, but the Greek word for king, basileus, lends itself to this connection. In fact, in addition to its common French name, basilic, basil is also known as l'herbe royale in French. But if you want to slander someone in France -- perhaps picking up on basil's unflattering folklore -- the phrase to use is semer le basilic ("sow basil").
  • Basil (O. basilicum) is also known as St. Joseph's Wort in English speaking countries.
  • In India, under British crown rule, Hindus were allowed to swear on holy basil (O. tenuiflorum) instead of the bible in court.
  • In Italy, put a pot of basil on your windowsill to signal a lover. But in Ancient Greece and Rome, it was believed that the herb would only grow where there was hatred and abuse.


Basil is a sun loving plant and enjoys warm weather with well-drained, loose soil. It can be grown from seed, requiring up to two weeks to germinate, or can be grown from cuttings allowed to grow roots in a small cup of water.

As basil flourishes along the Mediterranean and in South East Asia, similar warm climates are required for outdoor gardens or containers. It can be grown indoors, but requires adequate light and temperature to thrive. Basil is a perennial and needs six to eight hours of direct sunlight. Those who live in a temperate climate can still grow the herb during the summer months, but it will not last past the first frost and will need to be planted again the following season.

To harvest your basil, pinch off flowers and select leaves from the top. Bushier plants have less flavor, so it is ideal to cultivate a smaller plant. Allow the basil plant to recover a week or so after each harvest.


Basil can be enjoyed year round, either grown and harvested outdoors during the summer months or grown indoors in a greenhouse.



A serving of two tablespoons, chopped, is a good source of vitamins K and A.

What to Look For

In addition to green basil commonly seen in markets, basil also comes in a purple variety. For all varieties, choose fresh basil leaves that are rich in color. If pre-packaged, leaves should be vibrant and lacking dark spots or wilting, signs that the basil is less than fresh.

What To Do With It

Storage : If basil is sold unwrapped and as a cluster, wrap in paper towel and store in a sealed plastic bag or container. Basil will keep for a week in a cool, damp environment. Avoid too much moisture as it will cause the leaves to decay and disintegrate.

Pro tip : A nifty way to store basil longer-term is to make basil "ice cubes" with olive oil instead of water. Too much basil from your garden or CSA? This is a great way to preserve your haul and enjoy basil any time of the year. To make frozen basil puree, chop up basil that has been washed and patted dry. (This can be any amount as you can adjust the oil used.) Take chopped basil, put into bowl for mixing, and then add enough olive oil so that the oil is a 2:1 ratio (oil to basil). Mix carefully. Find a clean ice cube tray that you don't mind getting olive oil and basil all over and spoon the mixture into the empty sections. Freeze. After cubes are solid, they can be stored in an airtight container or plastic bag for up to a year.

Cooking : Basil is best enjoyed raw, allowing its sweet, pungent flavor to shine through, although the herb is a nice addition to hot Italian dishes such as pasta sauce.

Sliced Peaches with Basil and Lavender

A quick and delicious summer dessert, fresh peaches pair well with the flavors of fresh basil and lavender. To make, cut up 5 ripe peaches into 3/4 inch slices. Place into a bowl, toss with a tablespoon of chopped basil and a tablespoon of chopped lavender. Squeeze a wedge of lemon over top, and fold ingredients together. This pairs deliciously with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

This post was originally published in July 2012.