Here’s all to know about basil! All you need to know about to growing, harvesting and storing this fresh herb, and the best ways to use it.

How to grow basil

The most iconic culinary herb of them all? Basil. This fresh herb is grown all over the world and renowned for its fresh, peppery flavor. Make it into sauces, throw it into salads, or garnish it on pizzas. It’s the essential ingredient in common Italian dishes, and the Thai variety is just as common in Southeast Asian curries and spring rolls. Here’s everything you need to know about this fresh herb: what it is, how to grow and harvest it, and the best ways to use it.

What is basil?

Basil is a culinary herb in the mint family. It is native to Africa and Southeast Asia, but today it’s grown worldwide. The type that’s most common in Western cooking is sweet basil, the plant that gives pesto its bright green color and peppery flavor. But there dozens of different types and cultivars of the plant. The most common major types of basil are:

  • Sweet basil, bright green and used in Italian and Mediterranean cooking (a common cultivar is called Genovese basil)
  • Lemon basil, a light green variety with a citrus scent
  • Thai basil, a variety with a purple stem and anise flavor used in Southeast Asian cuisine (see Thai Basil Guide)
  • Holy basil, a variety with a spicy, musky scent also used in Southeast Asian cuisine

What does basil taste like? Sweet basil has a fresh flavor, with a finish of black pepper and subtle anise and mint notes. It’s milder than the Thai variety, which has a strong black licorice flavor.

Where to find it? Basil is easy to grow at home, which is the cheapest and easiest way to access it. Or, you can find it fresh at most grocery stores in the produce section.

Types of basil
Thai basil is on the left; sweet is on the right

Basil substitutes

Are there any basil substitutes? Cooking up classic basil recipes like Caprese SaladBasil Pesto or Margherita Pizza? Try to find the real thing: it has a unique peppery flavor that’s worth seeking out. But if you’re making something less iconic, here are some ideas:

  • Oregano works in a pinch and brings in Mediterranean-style flavor
  • Tarragon can stand in, though it has a stronger anise flavor
  • Mint works well since it’s in the same herb family, but the flavor has more refreshing peppermint notes

Growing basil: some tips!

The best way to access basil? Grow it at home! All you need is a pot and a sunny ledge: no garden required. Here are some quick tips on how to grow basil:

  • Buy a starter plant at a farmers market or garden store. This is the most reliable way to grow it.
  • Plant it in full sun in a pot with drainage, raised bed, or soil. Use potting soil or a garden mix to plant the starter in a pot. Make sure the pot has holes in the bottom for drainage. If you have a garden, this herb does well in raised beds because of the drainage. Place the plant in a place that gets 6 to 8 hours of full sun per day.
  • Water the it regularly. Keep the soil around the plant moist, watering every few days.
  • Prune the plant regularly. Make sure to pick and use the leaves regularly: it helps the plant to grow! Remove any flowers immediately. See the instructions below.

How to harvest basil

Growing basil but not sure how to harvest it? Trimming it can be tricky, because it seems backward. Removing leaves seems like it would hurt the plant, right? Instead, it’s the best way to stimulate new growth and help the plant get bushy and strong. Here’s how to harvest basil:

  1. Once a branch has six to eight leaves, trim back the stem and leaves to the first set of leaves. That’s right: do not remove single leaves! This helps to encourage the plant to start branching and become large and bushy.
  2. If flowers start to grow, cut them off immediately. Flowers mean the growth cycle of the plant is ending.
  3. Trim the leaves regularly: it helps the plant to grow! When you bring the branches inside, store the fresh herb properly to extend its life (keep reading).

Storage info

Basil is best used fresh. When you use it in recipes, harvest a few branches of the herb and then remove the leaves. You can store the cut stems in a jar in the refrigerator. Here’s how to store basil:

  • Find a large glass jar and add a few inches of water. Make sure the jar is large enough that the stems won’t be squished or packed inside.
  • Place the stems inside the jar, cut side down. Screw on the lid of the jar, which helps to keep the herb fresh.
  • Store refrigerated for 3 to 5 days. 

Other ways to store basil? The best way is making it into pesto! You can freeze the pesto in an ice cube tray, then pop those in a large freezer save bag or container. You can also dry the herb, but we don’t recommend it since much of the flavor is lost in the drying process. (See How to Dry Basil.)

Top 10 basil recipes

Basil is a fresh herb that makes the flavor in several iconic dishes, and it’s a perfect backup character in others. You can add it to pizza, pasta, sauces, cocktails, and salads to add a burst of peppery, fresh flavor. Here are the top 10 ways to use basil in your cooking! Or, head to Top Basil Recipes or Thai Basil Recipes.

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Quick Guide to Basil


  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 5 minutes
  • Yield: 1 heaping cup (18 tablespoons) 1x
  • Diet: Vegetarian

Description

Here’s all to know about basil! All you need to know about to growing, harvesting and storing this fresh herb, and the best ways to use it. Basil pesto recipe is below, or scroll up for other ways to use this herb!


Ingredients

Scale
  • ½ cup raw unsalted pine nuts, cashews, or walnuts*
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 medium garlic cloves
  • 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup olive oil, plus additional as needed

Instructions

  1. In a small dry skillet, toast the nuts over medium high heat, stirring constantly, for about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the nuts to a bowl and allow them to cool slightly. (This step is optional, but brings out a more robust flavor in the nuts.)
  2. In food processor**, combine the nuts, cheese, and peeled garlic. Process until finely ground, 20 to 30 seconds.
  3. Add the basil, lemon juice and kosher salt. Turn on the food processor and gradually pour in the olive oil. Once combined, turn off the food processor. Blend in a bit more olive oil if desired, to achieve a looser texture. Stores for about 1 week in the refrigerator and several months frozen (freeze it in ice cube trays!).

Notes

*Pine nuts are traditional, but can be expensive. We’ve tested both cashews and walnuts and they have great flavor. Since we often have these stocked in our pantry, we use these variations more often than pine nuts.

**You also can do the same method using a mortar and pestle, adding the basil leaves gradually and crushing them against the sides of the mortar.

  • Category: Sauce
  • Method: Blended
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: Basil

More herb recipes & info!

Love cooking with herbs? Us too. They’re one of the most transformative elements for home cooked recipes! Here are a few more posts about growing and cooking with herbs:

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you'll want to make again and again.

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