You wouldn’t know it from what’s topping your caprese, but basil comes in more than one fragrant type of green leaf; there are nearly 50 varieties listed in seed catalogs! They all have one thing in common, though. Basil plants adore hot weather, so summer is the time to pay homage to them by expanding your repertoire to include some unusual stems.
The classic, this is the sweet basil plant that yields addictive, delectable pesto and is named after pesto’s home—Genoa, on the Ligurian coast of Italy. The delicate leaves turn black almost the moment you fold or cut them, and the aroma diminishes considerably if you store basil in the fridge (remember: the plant adores heat!), so store basil like flowers, in a glass of water on the countertop. In addition to pesto, there’s almond no Italian dishes that wouldn’t welcome Genovese basil.
You can recognize Thai basil by its purple stems and leaf veins. It’s pretty, aromatic, and distinctive enough that you might start craving a good Thai curry as soon as you get a whiff. Some descriptions pinpoint the scent as licorice-y, but there’s an underlying savory mystery to the flavor that might not be so easily summarized as that.
Hot or Holy
Though we associate basil with Italy, the plant originated in India, which helps makes sense of the fact that Asian countries, especially Thailand and Vietnam, use the herb abundantly in their cooking. With a more clove-like scent than most basils, kaphrao, as it’s called, is so beloved by Thais that an equally beloved dish of stir-fried pork or chicken is named after it. “For short, people often order [this dish] as phat kaphrao, literally ‘stir-fried holy basil,’” writes Andy Ricker in his book about Thai cuisine, Pok Pok. “In the US,” he muses,” we’d never give top billing to an herb.” Fragrant food for thought.
Lemon or Lime
Two cultivars that smell and taste like citrus, these basils are best reserved for drinks: you can brew a wonderful herbal tea, flavor lemon or limeade, or make an herbal simple syrup for pretty much any cocktail. You can use them in savory food, too, particularly seafood. Just consider, for an extra moment before you do, whether the citrus flavor will augment or detract from your dish; it’s a little more specialized than regular Genovese.
Cookbook author Deborah Madison raves about this varietal, which smells like, well, basil plus cinnamon. “Simmered in cream with green chile, a cinnamon stick, and some mint leaves for seasoning summer squash…it reveals an extraordinarily delicious and complex nature.” Wow.
While many basils grow in wild, leggy bushes, globe basils stay more compact, developing into small, orb-like shapes (thus the name) that look like you spent time in the garden pruning them. Pluto is one of those. Known as a Greek basil, its tiny leaves are sweeter and more aromatic than Genovese, with notes of cloves added to the bouquet.
Like Thai basil, this one has beautiful dark purple stems, but Christmas basil produces unique purple flowers too. The leaves give off a spicy aroma, while the edible blooms emit notes of mint, anise, and cinnamon—the latter, perhaps, explaining the wintry name. This versatile basil can be used interchangeably with any other called for in your recipe.
A pretty lacy leaf that’s—you guessed it—purple, this basil has warm and citrusy notes, but none so strong that you couldn’t easily pound it down to make a classic pesto, albeit one that’s delightfully different in hue from the norm. Of course you might not want to pulverize those showy spiked leaves, meaning this is a gorgeous one to keep in mind when you need an impressive garnish for pasta, pizza, or salads.
Leaves of African Blue start off purple, but as the plant matures, the color becomes an accent, speckling the otherwise green leaves and tinting the stems and flowers. With a strong, earthy scent and taste, this one has less in common with mildly sweet basil than you’d expect. But if you’re up for cooking this striking plant, you might find it tastes as good as it looks. If not, at least it makes a pretty garden border.