You might have heard about Thai basil and wondered if there is any particular difference compared to the most common sweet basil. Does Thai basil is better on recipes? Which one to use and when? Do they look different?
Thai basil has a milder flavor with an extra licorice aroma missing in sweet basil. Thai basil leaves are firmer and longer than sweet basil and have purple flowers. Sweet basil has generally white flowers. Thai basil has purple and hair stems compare to the green and bare of sweet basil.
Is the taste so different that it might change their use on your dish? Does Thai basil use much more space than your normal (sweet) basil? Keep reading to find the answer to these and many more questions.
To note: Sweet basil and Genovese basil are the same things!
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Sweet basil has a distinct and robust taste that is a mix of anise, peppery, and a bit sweet. Thai basil taste is milder and presents an extra twist of licorice with a spicy touch.
Genovese and Thai Basil are very easy to tell apart. Indeed they look pretty different, mainly because of their leaves and stem. Let’s dive into each of those aspects.
Sweeet basil presents large, oval, and curly leaves while Thai basil has narrower, more prolonged, thinner, and often straight leaves.
Expert Gardener Tip: Basil leaves release an intense aroma when rubbed (that will end up on your fingers) while this is not the case with Thai Basil leaves.
Thai basil has a purple stem and is covered in small hair-like fluff compared to the smooth and green stem of sweet basil.
Both of them, when grown, are quite rigid and can become woody at their end of life.
Sweet basil, at the end of its life, produces seeds through small white flowers. On the other hand, Thai basil produces more colorful pink/purple flowers.
In both varieties, those flowers are pretty small (like a fingertip) and present the same shape.
Thai basil is preferred for ornamental purposes way more than sweet basil.
Indeed, if sweet basil is grown indoors mainly for its tasty leaves, a fair number of indoor gardeners grow Thai basil for its colorful aspect. Indeed, Thai basil is also classified as an ornamental cultivar, more in this publication from the University of Brasilia.
As a suggestion, I would not mind growing sweet basil and Thai basil side to side. The contrast of a purple-ish herb with a green one is lovely.
Regarding their flower, you need to remember that if you see them, then it means that your herb is going to die soon. Indeed, the flowering stage is when the plants prepare themselves to produce seeds. All its energy is focused on the production of seeds, leaving the leaves bitter (although edible, more discussed on why your basil leaves are bitter article).
Thai basil is a perennial herb in contrast to sweet basil that is an annual plant that will last only one season. However, in case of lower temperature both Thai and sweet basil, they will last only one season.
Herbs, depending on how long they are biologically programmed to last, can be classified in perennial, annual and biannual. Annual are herbs that last only one season (around 4-5 months or up to a year if you prune them efficiently). Sweet basil is an annual herb.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are perennials. Those are plants that can live more than two years, and, during winter, they might go in “dormancy” during which their growth stops (or slows down) to then come back to life in a warmer period. Thai basil is a perennial herb.
However, this is true only if you avoid temperatures below 50F (10C). If not, your herb will die-off (behave as an annual) and not come back in spring. Remember, a perennial is usually as such only if kept warm during cold seasons.
Hence, you have a way higher chance to successfully grow Thai basil inside as a perennial. However, you should remember to pinch the flowering buds as soon as they appear to make your herb last longer and keep producing new branches.
Thai basil is a staple in East Asia cuisine where it is used in many dishes such as the Thai basil chicken. Another famous Asian dish with Thai basil is the Thai larb (also known as meat salad).
On the other hand, sweet (Genovese) basil is a staple of Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian. Countless are the plates that can give their best only with a generous presence of sweet basil leaves on it. Think about it as a topping on a pizza (here is a Margherita recipe). What about in the bolognese sauce? Pesto, by far, is the most famous recipe where sweet basil is used (and also a smart alternative to store basil as detailed in this guide for preserving basil).
Can you do pesto with Thai basil? Although possible to do pesto with Thai basil, I do prefer to stick with sweet basil due to its stronger taste. If you want to try Thai basil pesto, you might need to adjust the recipe (just avoid following the sweet basil one by just replacing the Thai basil). Indeed, Thai basil as licorice and a milder taste. Have a look at the video below for ideas:
Thai and Genovese basil significantly differs for their behavior to temperature during cooking. Genovese basil must always be added at the end of any dish you are preparing (during the cooling down process). Indeed, prolonged exposure to high temperatures will make the essential oil dissipate. So you might lose the anise/sweet taste in the dish. On the other hand, Thai basil deals very well with heat, and it is usually added at the beginning with all the other ingredients to release its flavor slowly.
Another cool aspect of Thai basil is that its seeds are often used to create tasty cold drinks. Some of them might adopt jelly powder (widely consumed in East Asia, here the video).
Another use that you might never hear of Thai basil leaves for dessert like ice cream. Indeed, its licorice taste makes it an ideal candidate for it. Some also add Thai basil seeds to the ice cream due to their ability to reduce water crystals in the mixture as detailed here.
Can You Replace Thai Basil with Sweet Basil?
Thai basil should not be used to replace sweet basil as the taste is quite different. This is particularly true in plates where the basil is the main ingredient such as pesto for which Thai basil should not be used. The same applies to pizza for instance where sweet basil only should be used.
If you decide to replace sweet basil with Thai basil I would recommend using a 3 to 2 ratio (for every 3 leaves of sweet basil use only 2 leaves of Thai). this is because Thai basil adds a licorice flavor missing on sweet basil that might not match with many Mediterranean plates.
Thai basil is a different basil variety from sweet basil that has been developing through selection in Southeast Asia where it is a way more stable herb than sweet basil. The differences are indeed quite remarkable even at a biological level.
Everyone knows sweet basil (the regular basil, also called Genovese basil or Italian basil). Its green and tasty leaves are indeed used in many recipes. It is quite common, especially in the western world, and sold even in a small pot for a dollar or less in supermarkets (here is a guide on how to turn those pots in durable basil herbs).
However, sweet basil is only one of the 50+ varieties that you can find it. In recent years Thai basil is starting gaining popularity even in the western world. Indeed, this type of basil is well-known and established in East Asia.
Where to Buy Thai Basil?
Thai basil, although getting more and more widespread in the western world, is still far away to have even the same popularity (commercial wise at least) as the sweet (Genovese) basil. Hence, you will not often see potted Thai basil sold in supermarkets as it currently happens for sweet basil.
However, you can find packages of fresh Thai basil leaves (here is a UK chain selling it, and here from Walmart) meant to be tossed in your favorite Asian dish. A pro tip: sometimes, those leaves have been manually removed from the herb, so it is not uncommon to find whole stems coming with a few leaves. Hence, there is a small change that you can grow back a whole Thai basil plant through propagation using those stems there by chance. Here is a detailed guide on how to endlessly propagate basil through propagation.
If you are looking in growing Thai basil and you did not have a chance to find a whole plant/stem, then you might consider starting from seeds. In this case, given how easy they are to transport, and long shelf life, you can find Thai basil seeds in many gardening shops. In this case, you might check the “Sow Right Seeds“, (quite good ones) on Amazon.
Thai basil presents 20% fewer proteins (3.2 g vs 4g each 100g of leaves) and 40% more carbohydrates (from 2.8g to 2g) than sweet basil.
However, do not overthink this. Indeed, even or such a large amount of laves you need to have (100g of leaves is many leaves), the amount of protein and carbohydrates involved is minimal.
Basil, independently from its variety, is a healthy food that you want to add to your diet, as discussed in this study from the University of Illinois. However, you might wonder if and how much the nutritional value of Thai basil differs from the one of sweet (Genovese) basil.
Table1: Nutrients content in grams for each 100g of leaves
|Thai Basil||Sweet Basil|
More important is their vitamin content, which again according to nutrionix is very similar among the two basil varieties. It is worth noting the high content of vitamin A. Even 10grams of basil leaves (not difficult to eat) brings you 10% of your recommended daily intake.
|Vitamin||Thai Basil||Sweet Basil|
Sweet basil and Thai basil grew more or less at the same rate, with a top height of around 16-18 inches (up to 45cm) leading to the same harvest.
However, this only applies if you leave your basil to grow without any harvesting strategy. On the other hand, if you harvest your basil (as detailed in 21 tips to grow massive basil), you will boost massive growth. This can lead to an herb even taller than 3 feet (around a meter), almost double its “normal” size.
Can Thai basil be used in salsa sauce? Yes, it can be used, although the licorice taste might overtake. Moreover, differently from Sweet basil, Thai basil can be added from the beginning of the sauce preparation, rather than at the end.
Are Thai basil and cinnamon basil the same? Cinnamon basil presents a note of cinnamon flavor missing in the more licorice of Thai basil. Cinnamon, different from Thai basil, does not handle being cooked. They can be used interchangeably.
Are Thai basil and Mint the same? Mint and Thai basil are quite different in taste, aspect, and biology. Mint is an invasive perennial that developer runners while Thai basil an annual in cold weather. Thai basil has a licorice taste missing in mint and it is not as versatile as mint in tea. However, Thai basil is way more used than mint in a large variety of recipes.