Lemon Basil Vs. Basil: SPICEography Showdown

Lemon basil and basil belong to a single family as their names suggest, but they are not identical. If you want to use either or both of them appropriately, you should be mindful of their characteristics. While there are recipes that may benefit from either herb, many should only be made with one. Learn more about how lemon basil and basil compare and differ in the SPICEography Showdown below. 

How does lemon basil differ from basil?

With lemon basil and basil, the first difference that gets most people’s attention is flavor. The flavor accounts for the lemon part of lemon basil’s name. It offers the familiar notes you would get from basil with a hint of lemony citrus. Basil goes by many names including sweet basil and Italian or Genovese basil. Its flavor profile is a bright and herbaceous mint with notes of anise. The flavor of basil may also have a citrus component but that element will not be as strong as the lemony note in lemon basil. 

Another way you can distinguish between these herbs is to pay attention to their appearance. The leaves of the lemon basil are not as wide as those of basil and may be a paler green. 

Can you use lemon basil in place of basil and vice versa?

Lemon basil will work in many recipes that require basil, the big difference from basil being that it will provide a lemon note. You should not use it where the lemon note is not a valuable addition to your dish.

For example, lemon basil would not be appropriate for a classic marinara if you want the traditional flavor profile. Basil by itself will not be a great lemon basil substitute since it will not have the crucial lemon note; however, you may combine basil with lemon zest to create a decent alternative.

If you are replacing fresh lemon basil with basil, you should be using fresh basil. Dried basil is even less of an ideal lemon basil substitute since cooks typically use lemon basil as a fresh herb. 

When should you use lemon basil and when should you use basil?

Use lemon basil in dishes its lemon note would improve — it is a great complement to seafood and to poultry. Traditional uses of lemon basil include as one of the main sources of flavor in Laotian stews and Indonesian curries; lemon basil is also an important ingredient in the Malaysian dish known as nasi ulam

Along with its uses in food, lemon basil makes a great addition to lemonade and you can use it to make tea. You can use a simple syrup featuring lemon basil to make the aforementioned lemonade or various desserts. Lemon basil is not one of those herbs that will stand up to handle long cooking times, so toss the herb in as close to the end of the cooking time as is workable.

Fresh basil has many applications including in caprese and other salads. In additon, you can use it to make pestos. Like lemon basil, you less you cook it the better — use it at the end of a dish’s cooking time. Dried basil is almost as versatile, though it is best used in cooked preparations. Both forms of the herb are great in tomato-based applications.