Basil Vs. Oregano: SPICEography Showdown

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Basil and oregano are both popular spices and are essential for Mediterranean dishes. Both are key ingredients for flavoring spaghetti sauces, stews and a range of tomato- and cheese-based dishes. When faced with these popular herbs, you may have questions like do they have similar flavors? Are they different in terms of nutrition? Are they interchangeable? We will answer those questions and more in this installment of SPICEography showdown.

Do basil and oregano have similar flavors?

Basil’s flavor is minty and peppery with elements of clove and anise backed up by intense herbal notes. When dried, the herb’s flavor changes as the mint notes become stronger, though the clove aspect remains intact. Whereas basil is sweeter and herbal, oregano is bolder and earthy. Oregano’s flavor is woodsy and reminiscent of camphor with mild lemon notes. It is also slightly bitter and more pungent than basil.

If a recipe calls for basil, can you use oregano? And vice versa?

Whether you can use oregano in place of basil depends on the dish you are trying to make. Both herbs pair well with garlic, with oregano’s pungency giving it a slight advantage. They work equally well in most tomato dishes whether they are dried or fresh. This means that they are usually interchangeable, though the absence of either will change the character of the dish.

The ideal scenario for most Mediterranean dishes is to use both since they complement each other perfectly, but one or the other will also be effective in stews and tomato-based pasta sauces. In Mexican food, oregano is the traditional herb; basil is not as widely used and may be considered too sweet.

Is there a difference in the nutritional value of basil compared to oregano?

Both herbs are rich in vitamin K and contain many times the daily-recommended intake of that vitamin; however, one key difference is that oregano is usually consumed after being dried and the drying process typically starts shortly after the herb is harvested. This means that nutrients do not get a chance to break down as quickly with oregano as they do with basil. Unless you grow basil yourself and harvest it just before eating, it will lose much of its nutritional value. Oregano is thus a much richer source of B-complex vitamins like niacin and thiamin, though both herbs are good sources.

If both herbs are dried, then basil typically has higher concentrations of all major nutrients when compared to oregano.

What are the best ways to use basil and oregano?

Basil’s sweetness makes it perfect for everything from salads to pairing with burrata and tomatoes. You can use fresh basil and add it at the end of cooking time, or you can use the dried herb and add it earlier in the cooking process. The fresh form does not stand up well to being cooked for long periods, but when used it can add a brightness that may be lacking in dried basil.

Many Americans will immediately recognize oregano as the pizza sauce herb. It is the single most noticeable herbal component of many pizza sauces. It is also used alongside basil in pasta sauces where its ability to withstand long cooking times allows it to impart a fuller flavor. Oregano can be used in its fresh form, though its pungency tends to make the dried form preferable. Most chefs recommend dried oregano over the fresh herb.


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