Discover the best ways to use basil in the kitchen and bring out the flavor from this popular herb.
We’ve included some of the most popular recipes and resources to inspire your own dishes when cooking with basil.
Table of Contents
Basil Cooking Basics
Basil’s rich pungent aroma and fresh taste will spice up all manner of summer dishes. Raw leaves add zest to summer salads or tomato sandwiches. I enjoy basil in all sorts of cooked tomato dishes as well as paired with eggs and with fresh cheeses.
The University of Connecticut Extension also recommends basil with poultry, lamb, and fish. And of course, basil is one of the two dominant ingredients in pesto, that liveliest of sauces, which you can freeze to preserve summer’s taste into fall.
How to Cook with Basil
Preparing Basil for Cooking
Pick tender tips of basil, which have the best texture and the richest flavor. Separate leaves from stems, rinse them, and spin or pat them dry before adding them to your recipe.
Adding Basil to Tomato Dishes
Basil will enliven any tomato dish.
Fresh basil is best cooked very briefly. Snip it fresh into tomato soup just before serving, or put it into a red sauce for the last 5-10 minutes of cooking.
Dried basil should be added early in the cooking process, so there’s time for it to reconstitute and spread its flavor through the food.
When my family makes summer pizza, we slather fresh basil leaves onto the crust, then put sliced tomatoes on top. In winter, we mix pesto with tomato sauce before spreading it.
Making Pesto Sauce
There are many recipes for pesto. Choose the one you like best or create your own. The basic ingredients are basil, garlic, nuts/seeds, oil, and sharp dry cheese, with small amounts of lemon juice and salt.
If you plan to freeze your pesto, leave the cheese out until the pesto has been thawed for use.
Classic pesto recipes will call for sweet or Genovese basil, garlic cloves, pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
Since pine nuts are expensive and not always easy to get, my family’s tried various other nuts. Walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds worked nicely. Sesame seeds had a strong taste of their own, which, in my view, didn’t compliment the basil flavor.
I know people who have made other substitutions when making pesto. Examples include garlic scapes instead of garlic cloves, butter instead of olive oil, and other greens instead of part or all of the basil.
Toast your nuts or seeds.
Put the nuts and garlic into your food processor and blend until they are a paste. Then add basil, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt (and also cheese unless you plan to freeze the pesto) and blend until smooth.
If the resulting pesto is too dry for your taste, add water or more olive oil. If it’s too wet, add more nuts or cheese. If you don’t like the balance of basil and garlic flavor, add more of whatever you’re missing.
Freeze your pesto if you’re not going to eat it within a few days. I drop lumps of it onto a wax-paper-covered baking sheet, freeze them there and then transfer them into freezer bags.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation suggests putting pesto in jars or freezer-proof containers and adding a thin layer of oil on top before sealing the containers.
Pesto can be used in most dishes where fresh basil is used—in sauces and salads, on pizza and pasta, in omelets and quiches, etc.
Here are some delicious recipes to explore the many ways of cooking with basil.
Quick and Easy Soft Cheese with Basil
- Heat a gallon of milk to 180-200 F in a double boiler. (You don’t actually need a commercial double boiler if you have two pots that fit inside each other with a little room to spare).
- Stir in approximately ¼ cup of vinegar or lemon juice. Continue stirring gently until the curds separate out and the whey becomes yellowish (this could take as long as 10 minutes). If they don’t separate, add a little more vinegar or lemon juice.
- Pour curds and whey into a cheesecloth-lined colander.
- Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and hang it up (we hang ours on the faucet handle in the kitchen sink) for about an hour.
- Then dump the curds into a bowl and squash in salt and basil to taste while they’re still warm.
This cheese can be made with any sort of herbs, but I think it’s especially tasty with basil. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.
Basil gives a fresh, rich flavor to egg dishes, including frittata, which is similar to an easy crustless quiche.
There are many variants on frittata, and you can substitute in whatever vegetables you like or have on hand for what the recipe describes. Fresh basil can be chopped and beaten into the eggs., as in this Easy basic frittata recipe from the Richmond Register.
Pesto can also be beaten in with eggs. It’s better to add dried basil to the oil in which vegetables are cooked. This gives the basil time to reconstitute and the flavor will spread, as in this Frittata Primavera recipe.
Salads with Basil
Fresh raw basil adds freshness and zest to summer salads of all kinds. You can mix fresh leaves into a green salad or into a bowl of tomatoes, peppers, other summer vegetables, and cheese.
This North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension collection of recipes includes a pasta salad with basil and feta cheese mixed in just before chilling. I’ve made something similar with basil and soft goat cheese and whatever vegetables we had fresh from the garden.
Chicken Salad with Olive Oil and Basil is another favorite from North Carolina’s collection. It is a savory chicken salad dressed with different types of basil tossed with other herbs, onions, olive oil, and vinegar.
Focaccia Bread with Basil
Focaccia bread’s blend of basil and cheese gives it a delightfully rich and distinctive flavor. This Utah Cooperative Extension booklet gives a recipe for focaccia made with herb-infused oil; the oil-making process is described elsewhere in the same booklet.
Enjoy The Many Ways of Cooking With Basil
There are many ways to enjoy the zest of basil, both fresh and preserved. Recipes can give you a useful starting point, but there’s no need to adhere rigidly to them.
Substitute vegetables and cheeses according to your preferences, and feel free to increase the amount of basil or pesto the recipe calls for.
(I’ve never yet tasted anything and thought, “That has too much basil in it,” but if you feel differently, you could also use less than the recipe calls for.) The most important thing is simply to find what you enjoy and then make more of it.