How many varieties of basil are there?

Add complexity and depth to your next meal by learning about the different varieties of basil available. Check out this guide for a comprehensive overview!

Of all the aromatic herbs, basil is one of the most popular and versatile. Its sweet, spicy aroma makes it delicious in a salad, pesto, pasta, or in a creative cocktail. And if you don’t have an open space or garden, you can keep it in a pot in the kitchen, in a place where there’s enough light and sun.

But did you know that there are more than sixty different varieties of basil, each with its own distinct flavor? And over 180 hybrids? Mostly, it’s the leaves of the plant that are used in cooking, and these leaves can range from green to reddish to purple in color, depending on the variety, and the various flavors include hints of lemon, thyme, jasmine, clove, cinnamon, and anise.

Let us take a look at the most commonly used varieties in the kitchen. Though there are many more, these are the ones that you will most likely find at your local grocery store.

Table of Contents

    The most common types of basil for cooking

    I have compiled a list of the most common types (though there are many more). If you are a basil lover, you will love growing these varieties of basil. They are all edible and perfect for growing in containers.

    Italian/ Sweet (Genovese) basil

    The most common and certainly the best-known, Sweet Italian basil (Genovese) or Sweet basil can be recognized by its bright green oval leaves and its unmistakable scent. It is the best type of basil for preparing pesto, and perfect for flavoring salads, sauces, and condiments, and therefore is regarded as the essential variety for true Italian cuisine.

    You can also use the fresh leaves to flavor tomato dishes, bread, and meat. The large, dark green, shiny leaves of Italian basil grow up to 3 inches long and are loaded with volatile oils, responsible for the heady aroma and strong flavor so essential to cooking.

    This basil can be stored dried or frozen but you risk losing much of its aroma. It is therefore better to have a small plant at home (like in a container on the windowsill) and use it fresh. Just remember to put it in an area with enough light (not too strong) and water it regularly.

    Thai basil

    Sometimes referred to as licorice basil or aniseed basil, Thai basil is a type that is mostly used in Oriental cuisine in noodles, chicken, seafood, and pork dishes. It is also used to make the famed Thai basil tea.

    This basil is characterized by Lilac flowers and dark green leaves with a unique flavor that oscillates between that of licorice and that of anise; hence the nicknames. The leaves do not also wilt as much as those of sweet basil. It also has purple stems compared to other types.

    Thai basil can be eaten raw (in a salad or as a garnish) or cooked in dishes. It is also available in dried form, though the flavor is not as strong. It is perfect for flavoring fresh salads, and drinks (delicious basil liqueur.) or giving a particular note to fish dishes.

    Lemon basil

    ( Lemon basil Ocimum basilicum citriodorum ) is a variety of basil that is often used as a garnish and can be used in both raw and cooked dishes. In terms of appearance, it looks quite similar to Sweet basil, the difference being the shape of the leaves, which are slightly pointed (for better resistance to cold.)

    However, its peculiarity lies in the flavor, which, in addition to maintaining the typical scent of basil, has citrusy hints of lemon. This makes it ideal for flavoring fish dishes (especially sautéed) but also for making liqueurs or basil drinks with a citrus scent.

    Holy basil

    Holy basil, also known as Tulsi, is a popular herb in Asian cuisine. Whether in its fresh or dried form, holy basil leaves, as well as the flower tops, add tremendous taste to meats, especially chicken and also blend well with hot, spicy foods, giving a cooling effect.

    In Thai cuisine, this herb is used in fish, chicken, and beef curries: and also herb vinegar, stir-fries, chicken salad, and Szechuan sauce used with grilled chicken or fish.

    It has a sweet and slightly spicy flavor and in addition to its culinary uses, holy basil is also used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for its many health benefits. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-boosting properties.

    Cinnamon basil

    Another variety of basil is cinnamon basil, also known as Mexican basil. This unique variety is characterized by its purplish thin stems and flowers, with pointed, olive-green leaves. As its name suggests, the scent of cinnamon basil has a hint of mint, anise, and cinnamon, which makes it a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine for the preparation of desserts, cakes, and creams.

    Its textured leaves are perfect for tearing and tossing into green salads, blending into pesto soups, hot drinks, marinades, infusing, or even baked goods, with the flowers often used as a garnish in salads, flavoring soups, and also drinks.

    It pairs well with fruits such as oranges, melons, apples, kiwis, limes, strawberries, vanilla, pecans, and meats such as poultry, pork, ham, and beef. It is also excellent for herbal teas and infusions.

    Greek basil

    Greek basil also known as Sicilian basil, is another variety commonly used in cooking. With a peculiar bush shape, it has small, very fragrant, bright green leaves. In fact, at first glance, it may not look like basil at all but don’t be fooled. Their classic, but more delicate basil flavor tells you everything you need to know.

    As I’ve stated above, this variety has a more delicate flavor than sweet/Italian basil and is ideal for flavoring delicate dishes, salads, and meat dishes. The leaves may be small but are loaded with intense flavor.

    This cold-resistant basil is best used when freshly picked but can also be preserved by freezing or drying. In fact of all the varieties, it is greek basil that retains the most flavor and structural integrity when dried.

    Mint basil

    Mint basil (Yes, basil with mint flavor ) is similar to sweet basil in terms of appearance, with the main difference being its aromatic note that has a hint of mint. It is perfect for any method of preparation, particularly for flavoring any meat, grilled vegetables, and drinks.

    To satisfy your curiosity, yes, there is also basil mint.

    Purple basil (Red basil)

    Also called red or violet, purple basil is very similar to Genoese basil except for the dark purple color of its leaves. The scent is more delicate, which makes it perfect for every use.

    It is excellent for preparing a pesto with an alternative color and a delicate flavor, with its visual appeal, purple basil will be a real source of pride for your vegetable garden, but it also makes a good impression on the balcony.

    Under purple basil varieties is Red Rubin basil, Which is not red, as the name suggests, but rather has purple stems and purple or purple-green mottles leaves. In terms of flavor, there is a similarity with sweet basil, but this one has a more pungent, clove-like flavor.

    Other types of basil

    In addition to the ones I mentioned earlier, here are a few other types of basil:

    • African blue basil
    • Lime basil
    • Wild basil
    • Christmas basil
    • Cardinal basil
    • Lettuce Leaf basil
    • Mammoth basil
    • Green Ruffles basil
    • Dark Opal basil
    • Wild basil

    There are many more varieties of basil out there, each with its own unique flavor and culinary uses. If I was to write about all the type of basil, the list would be endless.

    Are all varieties of basil edible?

    Not all varieties of basil are edible. Many species are generally unpalatable due to very strong flavor and many are too tough or woody to eat. Furthermore, among the edible ones, there are types of basil that are not suitable for the preparation of dishes but rather for the infusion of the leaves for herbal teas with beneficial properties.

    Each variety has a slightly different flavor and often different flowers or leaf colors and for the best flavor, the leaves should be picked before the plant begins to flower.

    If you have space, it is a good idea to grow several different kinds at least till you figure out your favorites. An added benefit to growing your own basil is that it repels flies, mosquitoes, and cockroaches.

    Although basil is an annual plant, make sure you pinch it back to keep it from flowering, to encourage lusher leaf growth, therefore extending its growth period.

    Can you eat basil flowers and seeds?

    Basil is one of many herbs in which almost all parts are edible. The leaves, stems, flowers, and even seeds can be eaten. The flowers have a similar, though milder, flavor compared to the leaves. They can be used as a decorative garnish or soaked in olive oil to infuse them with the flavor of the basil.

    The best time to use the flowers is when they begin to develop. Here, their flavor is at its peak and they are the most palatable. You can use the whole flower- you do not need to pluck only the petals

    For the stems, you can use them together with the leaves when making pesto or finely chop them, still with the leaves to cook in your sauces. Remember, when I talk about stems, I mean the soft ones, not the hard woody stems.

    As for basil seeds, you can eat them after soaking them in water, since they are very hard. They are rich in fiber and antioxidants and it’s because of this high fiber content that you should consume them in moderation (about 2 teaspoons per day). Otherwise, you risk having a bloated stomach, constipation, and diarrhea.

    Can you eat raw basil?

    Basil can be eaten raw, in pesto and salads, or in cooked dishes. You can also dry basil (in a dehydrator, oven, or sun) or freeze it for future use in your culinary endeavors.

    Cooking with basil can be an exciting experience for home chefs. There are numerous types of basil available to explore, each offering different flavors and aromas that can enhance the taste of your dishes. From the traditional sweet Italian basil to the spicier Thai basil, feel free to explore the delicious world of fragrant herbs!

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