Basil vs. Thai Basil: What’s the Difference?

by Charlie

If you’re into herbs and spices, chances are you’ve already been buying and using the great basil in your cooking adventures. But did you know that basil comes from the family of mints called Lamiaceae? And not only that. There are many varieties plus hybrids of this culinary herb. Two of them are basil and Thai basil. 

Basil is the most common variety of basil you see in markets and stores. Some call it sweet basil, Genovese basil, Italian basil, or sweet Italian basil. These names refer to one and the same kind, your common basil. Thai basil, on the other hand, is mostly found in the International aisles or Asian markets.

Now, you may be thinking that they are one and the same in taste and appearance. But they are not identical.

So what’s the difference between basil and Thai basil? The main difference between basil and Thai basil is the taste. Basil is the classic sweet, peppery type of basil that has the smell of anise or cloves. Thai basil is also sweet and smells of anise or licorice, but it is mildly spicy too. Thai Basil is also more flavorful than regular basil.

What are Other Differences Between Basil and Thai Basil?

There are other differences between basil and Thai basil.

Firstly, they differ in appearance. Basil leaves are delicate, shiny, smooth, and round with green stems. These droop easily. Thai basil leaves are stronger and more narrow. They also have hairy purple stems and jagged edges. Thai basil is easily distinguished for its firm leaves, and of course, its color.

Secondly, they handle hot temperatures differently. You can add Thai basil early in your cooking, but you should always add the softer sweet basil at the last, because they easily wilt and become overcooked. When that happens, the leaves lose their oils along with their flavoring.

Hence, sweet basil or Italian basil does not handle heat well. But Thai basil can keep releasing more flavor and even retain it while you subject it to heat.

Thirdly, basil is an annual herb, but Thai basil is a perennial herb. Italian basil lasts only for a season. The plants thrive four to five months a year. But Thai Basil can last 2 years or more. It could become dormant during winter and perk right back up when the weather gets warmer.

Can You Substitute Basil for Thai Basil in Recipes?

Yes, you can use basil in place of Thai basil and the other way around. Both carry that sweet taste, and if that is what you are after, then a direct substitution will do. However, the taste may slightly vary since Thai basil is a bit spicy and smells like licorice.

So if you use basil and not Thai basil, you’d lose that spicy flavor and licorice scent. Instead, you’ll get that sweeter taste and the aroma of cloves.

For other substitutions, you can use holy basil or tulsi. Some regard it as sacred and use it for religious purposes. But Thais love cooking with holy basil. It is spicy, peppery, and not as sweet.

You can also use fino verde basil, but it’s a bit gingery besides being sweet. Lemon basil is another option. It infuses lemony notes that blend well with dressings, dips, and salads. Lemon basil is also great on your tea or soup, as well as meat rubs.

If you are after the licorice taste and aroma of Thai basil, try substituting with star anise. It has that licorice taste. Good quality ones are very pungent and can flavor a lot with just a petal. When substituting with ground star anise, remember to start with small amounts.

When Should You Use Basil?

You should use regular basil on Italian dishes such as pizza and pasta. It is a required ingredient in making excellent marinara sauces. Basil also elevates meat burgers and makes hearty vegetable stews.

You can also make basil mayo dressing if you fancy it as a dip or a sandwich condiment. Or how about mixing some basil in your fresh leafy salads? Just add diced tomatoes, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt. 

Basil is also the main ingredient for pesto. You can whip up your own pesto to use in home-cooked pasta, sandwiches, and salads.

When Should You Use Thai Basil?

You should use Thai basil for Southeast Asian, Chinese, or Thai recipes. It helps make great-tasting noodles and noodle soups, chicken dishes, vegetable stir fries, and even curries. Thai basil is a key ingredient in savory Vietnamese spring rolls.

Like sweet Italian basil, you can add the leaves to salads and meat dishes. Add them as you simmer your vegetable soup or meat stew.

Thai basil is stronger when raw. You can put these leaves in vinegar, olive oil, or other types of oil to infuse flavor. Add some garlic or tomato to the mix. You can use your basil-infused oil on noodle soups like Pho.

Thai basil, like lemon basil, is great to have as tea. Some soak the seeds of Thai basil in water, and when the water thickens or turns jellylike, they make cold drinks or sweet jelly out of it.

Whether you use regular basil or Thai basil, keep in mind that basil leaves are best used when fresh. That’s when they give off the best taste and aroma. Yes, you can dry them, but even dried leaves have a short life. They lose their flavor shortly, and their taste changes.

You can extend the freshness of your basil leaves by placing them in airtight bags. Then store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Final Thoughts

  • Basil is sweet and peppery, while Thai basil is sweet and spicy.
  • Basil smells and tastes like cloves, but Thai basil smells and tastes like licorice.
  • Basil leaves are delicate, smooth, round, and green.
  • Thai basil leaves are firm, hairy, jagged, and purple.
  • Italian basil is an annual herb. Thai basil is a perennial herb.
  • You use basil leaves to make pesto.

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