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Art Basil

Six varieties of summer's favorite herb
Sweet basil | Photos: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table
Guide to Basil Varieties

Put away the parsley. Set aside that oregano. We're in peak basil season.

Whether you're growing it in your backyard or picking up a few bunches at your farmers' market, there is nothing like sweet basil in the summer. During this time of year, basil plants can grow up to two to three feet tall and two feet in diameter. Depending on the variety, the leaves can grow up to three inches long and two inches wide.

Basil is sweet, slightly bitter and the perfect complement to any salad. In the U.S., we associate the velvety leaves with Italian food, but there are so many varieties (more than we can list!) that are used in other cuisines around the world, ranging in flavor from sweet to spicy to slightly bitter. Here are six of our favorite varieties:

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Sweet Basil (see above): The most commonly found type in the U.S. and the most familiar, sweet basil has smooth, bright green leaves that are essential in pesto. Genovese basil is a variety of sweet basil that has a floral and delicate aroma. When the plants begin to flower, remove their buds to encourage the leaves to keep growing.

Holy Basil: This furry-stemmed plant with strongly scented green or purple leaves is grown for religious and medicinal purposes. The leaves are pale green, thin and tender. Hindus incorporate them into their religious practices, which is why the plant is never used to cook with in India.

Thai Basil: Popular in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, this basil is usually added to stir-frys last-minute and imbues a pleasing anise- and clove-like aroma. Its spicy flavor can be aggressive when eaten raw but is tempered once cooked. The plant stands tall with deep maroon stems and speckled leaves.

Fino Verde Basil: At times referred to as spicy globe basil, these tiny, dense leaves are actually a different variety and are ideal for gardening. Compared to the common sweet basil plant, its leaves are small. The two plants' flavors are similar though, with the fino verde having a bit more spice with ginger undertones. Unlike other basil varieties, the entire fino verde plant can be used in cooking, twigs and all.

Opal Basil: Arguably the flashiest member of the basil family, this deep burgundy-colored plant adds a splash of color to any dish with its purple stalk, leaves and flowers. The color of the plant intensifies as it matures. The taste is similar to that of sweet basil, which makes it ideal for a colorful pesto.

Lemon Basil: Perhaps the most novel variety, lemon basil adds a delicate tangy flavor to dressings, salads, teas and soups. It's strong, fragrant aroma works wonders when rubbed onto chicken or fish. Lemon basil is most often seen in Persian, Indonesian and Thai cuisines.

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