Sweet Basil: An Increasingly Popular Culinary Herb

Journal Article
Author(s): Charles Spence
Year: 2024

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum L.), of the Lamiaceae family, has long been a popular culinary and medicinal herb. However, the composition of the essential oil varies markedly between different varieties, meaning that the aroma/flavour profile can also vary significantly from one cultivar or hybrid to the next. Some of the key aromatic volatiles in basil essential oil include eugenol, methyl eugenol, linalool, methyl chavicol (also known as estragole), and methyl cinnamate. As highlighted by this narrative historical review, while fresh basil is nowadays often associated with tomato-based dishes and sauces in Italian cuisine, it was rarely used as a culinary herb in countries such as the US, Britain, or even, in fact, Italy prior to the twentieth century. The herb is consumed fresh, dried (though lacking the perfumed top notes), and as a paste (i.e., in the Mediterranean pesto and pistou). Sweet basil may also be one of the few herbs/spices to have been integrated into cuisine simply because it tastes good (i.e., because of its highly-pleasant aromatic flavour profile). There are also a number of important non-culinary uses for basil, based on its highly fragrant aroma, not to mention its antimicrobial properties, including in a ritualistic setting in countries such as Greece and Bulgaria.