Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

INFO: Basil 101

Basil is an herb, meaning it comes from the green part of the plant, rather than the seed, bark, or root, as spices do. It is part of the large mint family, which is characterized by glandular hairs on stems and leaves that contain aromatic oils. Basil has a spicy, warm aroma that is strong and persistent and is produced by phenolic compounds within the plant.

Basil probably originated in Africa and was domesticated in India. While basil was known in Europe from Greek and Roman times, most particularly in Liguria, where pesto was invented, it was hardly known in the United States until the 1970s.

There are several varieties of basil with several different flavors. Flavor depends on the variety, as well as the growing conditions and the stage at which the plant is harvested. The flavor changes as the plant grows so that in a plant which is still growing, you can find that the flavor compounds actually vary along the length of the leaf, with the older tip rich in tarragon and clove, and the younger base richer in eucalyptus and floral notes.

Pesto: Pesto is a both a puree and an emulsion. The word pesto comes from the same root as the word "pestle" since the basil leaves and garlic were traditionally ground with a mortar and pestle. Nowadays pestos are generally prepared in blenders or food processors and it's important to note that the appliance chosen to prepare the pesto has an effect on the flavor and the consistency of the sauce. A pestle crushes and shears; a blender only shears; and a food processor slices. These different actions produce different proportions of broken and intanct cells in the sauce. The more broken the cells are, the more the flavor will change. A coarse pesto will taste more like fresh basil leaves than will a finely processed pesto.

Storing Basil
: Keep stems of cut basil in a jar of water in a cool spot in your kitchen. Change the water daily and it will keep for three to five days. Or, keep it in the jar in the refrigerator with a ziploc freezer bag covering the leaves loosely. If the basil comes from the store in a plastic box or bag, refrigerate it in the store packaging.

Basil is Fragile: Basil is very susceptible to bruising. Ideally, one should sharpen one's knife every time before cutting herbs to avoid bruising the leaves. If you have the time, gently tearing the leaves rather than cutting will reduce blackening, if you don't mind a rustic look to your herbs.

Slicing and Mincing Basil: To slice basil into fine shreds ("chiffonade"), stack the leaves on top of one another and roll them into a tight tube. If the leaves are too small, bunch them as tightly together as possible. Cut the rolled leaves using one quick stroke for each slice. To mince basil, turn the chiffonade slices (pinching them together) and make perpendicular cuts. Don't go back over it after cutting once.

SOURCE: This information comes from: "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee, and from "Make Room for Basil" by Jessica Bard, in the June/July 2006 issue of "Fine Cooking."

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I have both purple and the Greek variety happily growing in pots. I use it all the time. It's easy to grow, super convenient to cook with and saves you from spending $1.99 per sprig at the store.

said by Acme Instant Food at 9:13 AM Delete

Yeah, I think I need to start growing at least basil. I don't like to waste herbs, plus the plants smell so good!

said by KT at 10:29 AM Delete

Thank you for your very helpful information on how to chop and mince basil!

said by Cristisha at 10:03 AM Delete

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