Basil and parsley are two herbs that are well known for adding color and flavor to European-style dishes. While similar in a few ways, they have some very different qualities and applications. Familiarize yourself with basil and parsley by reading the SPICEography Showdown below.
How does basil differ from parsley?
When most people think about culinary basil, the variety that usually comes to mind is sweet basil. You can identify sweet basil in a dish by its intense aroma that is equal parts spicy mint and anise with light notes of citrus. There are two main varieties of parsley, and both are equally well-known. There is flat leaf or Italian parsley and curly leaf parsley. Parsley has a very different flavor profile from that of basil in that it is mainly herbaceous and grassy with none of the sweet or minty qualities that distinguish basil. Both varieties of parsley have a similar flavor profile, but you will get more flavor from the flat leaf variety than from the curly leaf variety.
Both basil and parsley can be dried and used though only dried basil should be used for its flavor. Dried basil still retains some of the aromatic properties of the fresh herb; in comparison, dried parsley has little aroma or flavor.
The difference in flavors comes from a more fundamental difference: both herbs come from two distinct botanical families. Basil comes from the Lamiaceae family, which is the family to which several other intensely aromatic herbs belong. Basil’s relatives include mint along with rosemary and thyme. Both types of parsley come from the Apiaceae family from which we get herbs like celery and dill.
Another difference has to do with the herbs’ appearance. Sweet basil leaves are broad while the leaves of the flat leaf parsley plant leaves are smaller compound leaves sometimes described as rosettes. In keeping with their name, they lay flat like cilantro leaves. The leaves of the curly leaf parsley variety are curled inward to give a ruffled appearance.
Can you use basil in place of parsley and vice versa?
If you are considering swapping parsley and basil, the first thing to think about will be the respective flavor profiles. Yes, you can use basil as a substitute for parsley to provide a bright green color on the plate. Just roll and chiffonade the leaves. Many people will be unable to tell the difference by sight; however, they will be able to taste it. Basil is not mildly grassy like parsley and will certainly stand out among milder ingredients.
The relative mildness of parsley means that it will bring none of basil’s sharper and more aromatic qualities to a dish. Parsley might enhance a marinara sauce but not in the way that basil would. Similarly, you can use it in a salad but it will not provide the intensity of basil.
When should you use basil and when should you use parsley?
Use basil in dishes that feature tomatoes heavily since both ingredients work well together. You can also use basil as a part of a herb blend with other Lamiaceae herbs like oregano and rosemary. Add the dried basil early on to a dish that will cook for a long time; add the fresh herb towards the end of the cooking time since its flavors will not stand up to heat for extended periods.
Both forms of parsley are great for simple garnishes, but the flat leaf variety will also bring a burst of flavor. You can also add chopped flat leaf parsley to your meatballs or blend it for use in sauces and marinades.