Pantry Profile: Basil {Ocimum basilicum}

Bright green, tall, and aromatic, basil is a beauty. An ancient plant with a long history and strange folklore, its sweet, peppery flavor has been used for centuries in cuisine and medicine.

Basil is native to Africa and Southeast Asia and was eventually cultivated in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described basil’s {now well-known} benefits as a carminative and digestive, explaining its effectiveness in relieving flatulence, colic, and nausea. It also has a long history of use for coughs associated with colds, and the leaves were routinely used topically as an insect repellent and poultice to relieve bug bites and stings.

Much myth and legend surrounded this plant we now consider a simple culinary herb. The ancient Egyptians believed basil would entice the god Osiris to open the gates of the afterlife. In his book the English Physician Enlarged, 17th-century botanist Nicholas Culpeper speaks of the many strange superstitions connecting the plant to scorpions. He writes that a French physician by the name of Hilarius {not kidding} affirmed that smelling too much basil would breed scorpions in the brain! English folk magic invoked basil to ward off harmful spells, while witches were said to imbibe basil juice before flying on their brooms. In the Caribbean and parts of Mexico, the heartbroken turned to basil to return a lover’s roving eye, while those looking for wealth used it to attract money. In Sicily, women put a sprig of basil in their brassieres as an aphrodisiac fragrance.

For the Body

Of course, today, basil grows throughout the world in mild, temperate climates. While it may have lost its magical mystery, it is a backyard herb that offers a wealth of benefits for health. To start, it contains beneficial amounts of vitamins A, B, C, and K, as well as iron, manganese, copper, calcium, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.

But basil’s real healing comes from the powerful chemical constituents found in its leaves and blossoms. Both basil leaves and blossoms are antispasmodic, antiseptic, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory, making this herb a fantastic cold remedy. {A common remedy for hacking coughs, loosening phlegm, and soothing sore throats and mucous membranes combines one tablespoon of freshly chopped leaves in a cup of boiling water to sip as a tea.}

Basil also serves as a nervine, thanks to its calming and mildly antidepressant qualities. An uncommon adaptogen, basil helps the body defend itself against the harmful effects of stress, decreasing symptoms of anxiety and sleep difficulties. Both ingesting the leaves and atomizing the essential oil soothes nerves and uplifts the spirits, relieving intellectual fatigues and improving mental clarity.

Because of its content of eugenol and linalool, the same chemicals that give the herb its clove-like scent, basil’s essential oil contains potent antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial elements. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that these properties had impressive anti-plaque and anticariogenic {prevents tooth decay} bacterial effects, leading to further investigations as to its use as a possible supplement to promote oral health.

Basil plant

Grow It

Sweet basil is an annual in the Lamiaceae family {mint} that grows well in USDA Zones 10 and up. Sow seeds indoors six weeks before the last hard frost. Wait until the temperature outside is fairly warm; basil won’t grow in cold temperatures. Plant seedlings in well-drained soil about 12 inches apart in full sun. Plants grow about 12 to 24 inches high in a season and do well in containers. Basil enjoys moisture – if you live in a dry climate, mulch around the roots to boost water retention.

Deep purple to magenta flowers blooms from June to the first frost, depending on hardiness zone. To keep basil growing, remove the blossoms, but don’t discard them, as these are also fragrant and edible. Begin harvesting basil leaves when the plant is about six to eight inches tall. Keep harvesting to encourage growth and fullness. As cold weather approaches, take leaf cuttings to start indoor plants.


Keep It Fresh

Basil is best served fresh, as dehydrating it causes it to lose some of its flavors. If you need to store it, freeze it {simply refrigerating it will turn the leaves brown} to keep basil’s robust taste. Put leaves in freezer bags, eliminating as much air as possible, and store until ready to use. You can also chop basil and store the minced leaves in ice cube trays and cover with olive oil. You will be glad to have basil cubes on hand in the middle of winter.

Of course, you can dry basil. Cut longer stalks with leaves attached and hang upside-down in a warm, arid place. Once dried, remove the leaves, crush them, and store in an airtight glass bottle.

In a pinch, if you just want to store the herb for a few days, place the stems in a glass with a tiny bit of water. Wrap the leaves in a wet paper towel, cover that in plastic wrap, and store on the counter.

Eat It

Basil’s flavor is essential in classic Italian dishes such as Caprese salad, pesto, and pizza, and is robust flavor combines well with other herbs like oregano, rosemary, and chives. One of my favorite ways to preserve the taste of basil is to make an herbal oil.

basil infused oil

Basil-Infused Olive Oil

Fresh basil leaves and blossoms are perfect for an infused oil to liven up any summer dish – from grilled veggies to warm, crusty bread.

1/4 cup cut fresh basil leaves and blossoms

1 cup olive oil

Wash and pat dry basil leaves and blossoms and let wilt for 12 hours or overnight. Next, cut into ribbons with kitchen shears, removing tough stems. Place leaves, blossoms, and oil in a double boiler and heat together on low, stirring occasionally for about an hour. Remove from heat and let infuse for another hour or until desired taste is achieved. Strain through cheesecloth and bottle. Stored in the refrigerator, it should keep for about six months, but discard at the first sign of spoilage.