Why Basil Is So Good for You—Plus 14 Ways to Use More of It All Summer Long
“The most useful thing one can know about basil,” writes Marcella Hazan in her seminal cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, “is that the less it cooks, the better it is, and that its fragrance is never more seductive than when it is raw.”
In the summer, the floral bouquet of basil is ubiquitous: in the garden; at the farmers’ market; even at the supermarket. It’s as pretty as a bunch of flowers this time of year, too, with a voluptuous heft and verdant leaves you just don’t see in winter.
It’s also quite good for you. As Kara Lydon, RD, intuitive eating counselor and blogger, emailed Health, “Basil can help boost the antioxidants in your meals. … [It] contains one of the highest levels of the antioxidants beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants, also known as carotenoids, help to fight off oxidative stress in your body and may protect against chronic disease.”
So you’ve got plenty of reasons to use every leaf on the bunch. Happily, there are plenty of ideas out there for how to do that. Here are a few of our favorites.
Make big bunches of pesto, and freeze any you can’t use up before it goes bad in ice cube trays, with a layer of olive oil on top. Swirl pesto into pastas, on to soups, into risotto, and on top of baked salmon.
The dreamiest of things to plunk on a steak, pork tenderloin, or grilled chicken, compound butter is as easy as combining room-temperature butter, chopped dry basil leaves, salt and pepper. Roll the mixture up in a layer of wax paper inside another layer of aluminum foil, as you would with extra cookie dough. Refrigerate until cold, and slice off rounds of green-flecked butter over the coming weeks. (It freezes well, too!)
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If you’ve never folded fresh herbs into your salads, let today be the day. Fresh leaves of basil are a delight in salads, even beyond the classic Caprese. Mustard, lemon, vinegar, and shallot-based dressings all take kindly to a handful of basil leaves folded in with the other greens. You can even make a mixed-herb salad, as chef Jenn Louis suggests in her cookbook The Book of Greens. Serve it alongside roast salmon, and dress it with oil and vinegar if you wish.
Though you generally don’t want to overdo it with basil—as is true of mint, it bruises somewhat easily, which changes its flavor—you can fold it into cocktails and mocktails. Muddle it lightly for a strawberry spritzer. Add a sprig of it to lemonade. Remember that it can go in sweet and savory directions.
Take the idea one step further, as the authors of Canal House Cooks Every Day do, and make a rich simple syrup by combining two parts sugar to one part water. As it cools, add a few sprigs of basil. Once cool, strain out the herb. Use your basil simple syrup in iced teas, cocktails, or basil-strawberry lemonade.
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Remember that a bunch of basil tucked into the cavity of a chicken right before you roast it perfumes the whole bird. Same with fish you wrap in parchment; why not add basil?
If you’ve never had basil ice cream or gelato, you are missing out. Think about it: cream and basil. Luxe and floral. You can see how it could work so well, and there are plenty of recipes out there to help get you there.
Another Jenn Louis idea is to add basil to fruit crisps. Strawberries are famously basil-friendly, but so are peaches, plums, nectarines, and blueberries.
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Add basil leaves to pan bagnat, France’s famous sandwich of tuna, red onions, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. Tuck whole leaves into chicken-avocado or egg salad sandwiches. Jonathan Waxman’s book A Great American Home suggests combining roast eggplant, peppers, and zucchini with pesto for a sandwich. Most savory meats—especially Italian ones—are excellent foils for the herb, so feel free to experiment.
If you haven’t had a turkey sandwich with homemade basil mayonnaise—simply chopped basil, salt and pepper swirled into mayo—I’d argue you haven’t really had a turkey sandwich.
Italian salsa verde (distinct from Mexico’s version) can be as simple as parsley, basil, red pepper flakes, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper all spun together and used to top any meat or fish. But we’re particularly taken with this version, which Waxman uses to shellac the famous roast chicken at his New York City restaurant Barbuto.
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Basil is a member of the mint family, so when you’re making Thai and Vietnamese food, keep it in mind—especially when you don’t have the mint the recipe calls for. Though bai horapa, “Thai basil,” is more typical, and has a more pronounced anise flavor, the more commonly available sweet basil works nicely in most of these dishes. In her book Favorite Recipes from Melissa Clark’s Kitchen, Melissa Clark calls for basil in her coconut fish stew with lemongrass as well as her Thai-style ground turkey with chiles and basil.
Snipped fresh basil leaves on top of a pie are the real difference between homemade and takeout. Make every pizza gorgeous—particularly so if you can locate opal basil, with its knockout purple leaves.
Pasta or potato salad
Fold basil into your pasta and potato salads of choice, and notice how much it brightens up the flavor. These oil and mayonnaise salads can be overwhelming without citrus and herbs to add fresh notes, so try to do both.
Alex Van Buren is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen