Genovese Basil Vs. Thai Basil: SPICEography Showdown

Genovese basil and Thai basil are both cultivars of the same basil herb. The fact that they share a common ancestor means that they have some of the same characteristics. Do you need both in your spice cabinet? Can one stand in for the other? We answer those questions and a few others in this Spiceography Showdown.

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How does Genovese basil differ from Thai basil?

Genovese basil and Thai basil don’t look the same. Genovese basil has smooth, pale green stems that are delicate. Thai basil has purple stems that are hairy and sturdier than those of Genovese basil. The leaves have different shapes, with the smooth-edged leaves of Genovese basil being larger and rounder than those of Thai basil. Thai basil leaves are narrower and have a pointier shape with serrated edges.

Genovese basil and Thai basil don’t taste the same. Genovese basil is aromatic with a strong minty quality with a hint of citrus and sweet clove. Genovese basil can also have a light peppery quality. Thai basil has a similar mintiness without Genovese basil’s pepperiness, but with a strong anise or licorice edge.

Genovese basil and Thai basil don’t respond to heat in the same ways. Genovese basil can only take very light cooking before much of its flavor disappears. Thai basil can handle higher temperatures for longer periods compared to Genovese basil.

Genovese basil and Thai basil are not equally available, in that you might not find them in the same stores. True Genovese basil grown in Genoa will be hard to find in its fresh form outside of high-end grocery stores; however, the basil variety known as Genovese basil is grown all over the world.

Many people consider Genovese and the ubiquitous sweet basil to be identical, so you may see Genovese basil labeled as sweet basil in some North American and European grocery stores. Thai basil might be found in some of the more cosmopolitan mainstream grocery stores, but you are more likely to find it in Asian stores.

Can you use Genovese basil as a Thai basil substitute? And vice versa?

Genovese basil can work as a Thai basil substitute, but only in a pinch. While the two herbs do share some of their main flavor notes, they don’t share all of them. You don’t need a particularly well-trained palate to tell the difference between the clove notes in Genovese basil and the anise notes in Thai basil. Because Genovese basil lacks Thai basil’s ability to withstand heat, you will need to add it later in the cooking process.

Thai basil can work in place of Genovese basil, but it also won’t be ideal. Because Thai basil leaves aren’t as delicate as those of Genovese basil, you may have to shred them finely if you are using them to replace Genovese basil leaves in a salad. You will also want to avoid using the tough stems of Thai basil. In a raw application, Thai basil’s flavor will lack the brightness of Genovese basil.

When should you use Genovese basil? And when should you use Thai basil?

Use Genovese basil for classic Italian dishes like pasta and for pizza sauces, where you will add the herb right before the dish is ready. Genovese basil is also a great addition to a Caprese salad and Margherita pizza. Use Thai basil in classic Thai dishes like drunken noodles and green curries.