Bay leaves and basil are widely used herbs in Mediterranean cuisine. The two are often used together to flavor hearty Italian dishes but both are present in Asian food as well. Are there any other similarities? Do these herbs taste the same or dramatically different? Read on to see these and other questions answered in another SPICEography Showdown.
Do bay leaves and basil look the same?
When dried, bay leaves take on a drab olive green. The leaves are oval and smooth with tops that are greener and glossier than the undersides. Typical bay leaves can measure between 1 and 3 inches in length.
The most common type of basil in the US is the sweet basil. Basil leaves are large and bright green when picked fresh. They become a darker matte green when dried.
Do bay leaves and basil differ in flavor?
Bay leaves have very little flavor when they are fresh; however, their flavor becomes much more pronounced after a few weeks of drying followed by steeping in a liquid. Once dried bay leaves are cooked, they release a significant amount of a woodsy flavor that can be used to season soups and stews. It also adds a mild bitterness that can complement and balance the other flavors.
In comparison, basil is a member of the mint family. Fresh basil is highly aromatic and has a fragrance reminiscent of anise and clove. When basil is dried, the anise notes fade and what is left is something that is minty and with mild woody notes that are similar to those in bay leaves.
If your recipe calls for bay leaves, can you use basil? Can you use basil in place of bay leaves?
It depends on whether the basil is fresh or dried. The minty and mild woodsy flavor of dried basil makes it an acceptable substitute for bay leaf. Fresh basil would be too sweet to stand in for the savory notes of bay leaves. Similarly, bay leaves can be a good replacement for dried basil in soups, stews, and other braised applications but cannot be used in place of fresh basil for pestos and salads.
What are the best ways to use bay leaves and basil?
Both fresh and dried basil are perfect for tomato dishes and fresh basil is a popular ingredient in pestos. Fresh basil is also a good addition to salads. Dried basil can be a great complement to a wide variety of vegetables including zucchini and eggplant. It can be used to season poultry and fish in both dried and fresh forms. When using dried basil, it is best to add it in the last half hour of cooking.
One of the best-known uses of bay leaves in western cooking is the bouquet garni popular in French cuisine. Whether in or out of a bouquet garni, bay leaves can be used to flavor spaghetti sauces, curries and a range of other dishes that require long braising. The key to the effective use of bay leaves is to ensure that there is sufficient liquid for the bay leaf flavors to be infused. In addition to braised dishes, bay leaves are widely used for pickling alongside other spices.