The art of substitution is important for any home chef. Unless your cupboards are perfectly stocked at all times, you’ll occasionally find yourself needing to substitute ingredients in the middle of a recipe. In this article, we’re checking out substitutions for one of the most popular herbs on your shelf – basil.
What is Basil Exactly?
Basil is a culinary herb which is a member of the mint family. It is originally native to areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.
Basil has an appearance similar to many leafy greens. It is soft and slightly rubbery to the touch, and tears apart easily. It is fresh, vibrant, bright and hosts a lot of health benefits.
Basil has a unique taste, which does vary based on the variety that you choose. In general, basil is considered among the “milder” tasting herbs. To properly examine its taste, we’ll have to break it down into its most common variants – fresh and dried.
Fresh vs. Dried Basil
Fresh basil has a strong taste, and a bit of a sweet smell. It’s peppery, mildly sweet, and with a slight anise flavor. Compared to some other herbs, basil has a much milder flavor profile, which means it can be used in larger quantities. Many people would tell you that basil is among the “freshest” tasting herb.
Dried basil has a stronger taste than fresh, because the basil has been condensed into a smaller vessel. It has a stronger taste, and tastes more similar to something like oregano.
It is less sweet, and more “peppery” than fresh basil. But although it does differ, it still maintains a lot of the unique taste of fresh basil, which is why it can be substituted in so many recipes.
Dried basil is generally only suitable for usage in cooking, to add the flavor of basil to various dishes (sauces, meats, seasoning, etc.).
Fresh basil is also suitable for cooking, but various recipes will actually require the fresh leafy version of this popular herb (salads, pesto, pasta dishes, pizza, omelettes, etc.)
If you are looking to substitute fresh for dried basil in a recipe, you will always need more fresh basil. The general rule of thumb is that, if a recipe calls for dried basil, multiply that amount by 1.5 to get the comparable amount of fresh basil.
In this section, we’ll be examining some popular substitutes for basil in many different dishes. It’s important to note that these won’t be suitable substitutes for basil in all dishes, as there are certain recipes that use the herb in many different ways.
Additionally, you need to consider the need for dried vs. fresh basil. While some of the ingredients below might be a substitute dried basil, they won’t be a suitable substitute for fresh.
One of the best basil substitutes is another popular herb – oregano. Oregano has a slightly similar flavor profile to basil, although it tends to be a stronger and more peppery. Oregano definitely has a more distinct flavor.
Regardless, the two herbs are commonly used in similar cuisines, and you can substitute one for the other in many situations. Especially if you are working with the dried varieties of either herb.
Another herb that often works as an effective basil substitute is thyme. Thyme has a similar taste profile to basil, but is known to be a bit “sharper” in comparison. It is strong, peppery, and with stronger notes of mint.
Thyme is often used alongside basil in many dishes, which makes it a suitable substitute in many dishes as well. It goes well in sauces, on meats, in pasta dishes, and much more. With thyme, you’ll probably want to use a smaller amount than you would basil, due to its strong flavor.
If you’re looking for a substitute for fresh basil, then spinach leaves might be your best bet. Spinach has a much more mellow taste than basil, although it retains a lot of the fresh, leafy taste. It’s also quite a bit sweeter than basil.
Spinach is more than suitable in place of fresh basil in many dishes, such as pizzas, omelettes, casseroles, and more! You can even make spinach pesto.
Cilantro is definitely one of those “love it or hate it” foods, but it’s a great substitute for basil if you’re a member of the former. Cilantro is peppery, minty, and even citrus-y.
It substitutes great for fresh basil in a variety of dishes, and you can even chop it up fine and use it to season and spice. Be sure to know the difference and not mix up cilantro and coriander - although they are similar, they have different flavors.
Basil is actually a member of the “mint” family of herbs, so it is logical that mint makes an effective basil substitute in different situations.
Mint has an (obviously) mintier taste than basil, and it also has a rougher texture, so it probably won’t make an effective substitute for fresh basil. However, used in moderation, it can make an effective substitute for flavoring different dishes, sauces, and dips.
Just be sure that you go easy on the mint, as it definitely has a stronger flavor profile than most herbs.
This might be a bit of a stretch, because some Italian seasoning does contain basil. But it’s a good reminder to check your cupboards for Italian seasoning if you run out of basil! It’s full of flavor, and makes a suitable substitute for dried basil in most scenarios.
What is the Best Substitute?
For the most effective basil substitute, we’d have to go with oregano. Oregano is such a versatile herb that it can be subbed in for basil in so many different dishes, such as cauliflower pizza.
A close runner-up is spinach, especially if you need a substitute for fresh basil. Spinach is fresh, tasty, and milder in its flavor profiles than fresh basil. You can substitute spinach leaves for basil leaves in most applications of the fresh herb, and the resulting dish is very similar.
That being said, there are so many possibilities with cooking. It’s all about what works best for you! Read through our list above, and take it on a case-by-case basis. Part of the fun of cooking is experimenting with new ingredients to see what works best.