Basil belongs to the mint family but has a unique flavor. The flavor is minty and herbaceous with subtle licorice and citrus notes; the different characteristics of basil’s flavor vary in intensity according to which variety of the herb you are using.
Basil leaves play an important role in one of the simplest and most popular Italian dishes: pesto. The word pesto comes from pestare, an Italian verb that means to crush or pound. Pesto is prepared by crushing or pounding ingredients.
Outside of pesto’s home in the Italian city of Genoa, pesto merely refers to a paste that has basil leaves as the main ingredient. In Italy, the pesto name applies to various crushed or pounded foods that may or may not include basil. The deep green pesto that most of us know contains parmesan cheese, garlic and pine nuts along with basil leaves. Pesto’s flavor profile is primarily that of basil and is popularly used to make pesto alla genovese, which is pesto served with pasta.
Fresh basil is not quite as popular for topping pizzas as pepperoni, but it is still a widely used one. You will commonly see basil used on the margherita pizza (sometimes called a pizza margherita) which was supposedly invented in the late 19th century to display the colors of Italy’s flag. Basil is the green element along with the white of mozzarella cheese and the red from tomatoes.
The real story about margherita pizza is that it was likely invented much earlier and not for a particularly patriotic reason. The most likely motivation for making it is merely that fresh basil pairs very well with the tomatoes and mozzarella.
Marinara sauce is a tomato-based sauce popular in southern Italy, and that is typically served with pasta. Basil’s minty licorice notes pair perfectly with the rich acidity from tomatoes. The fact that the two work so well together is why basil shows up in most recipes for tomato-based pasta sauces.
You can use fresh or dried basil in a marinara sauce. Add the dried herb at the start of the cooking time and its flavors will infuse into the food over the several hours it takes to cook the dish. If you are using fresh basil, add it at the end of the cooking time since it will lose its flavor if you cook it for too long.
A dash of herb vinegar is a great way to add an extra touch of flavor to a salad, and basil vinegar is one of the most versatile ones. Basil pairs well with the acidity of vinegar as well as with most salad ingredients. Use it to make a vinaigrette, add it to a marinade or use it with seafood.
Basil vinegar is simple to make and requires only some fresh basil and your vinegar of choice. Combine them and let them sit for a week in a dark place. White, champagne and red wine vinegar are all excellent choices for making a basil vinegar.
Basil is a great tea herb even though that is not one of its best-known applications in the West. Its flavor is similar to mint tea with a hint of licorice. Basil tea is reputed to have numerous health benefits including the ability to improve oral health and help ease symptoms of diabetes. Lemon and ginger may be added to enhance the flavor and health benefits further.