If you’ve ever been to a fancy restaurant, your dinner may have come with a little green leaf on top: “bay leaves or basil”.
Here’s the burning question: Do you eat those charming leaves, or are they just decorations? It’s a problem many of us face, considering that most fresh herbs can be summed up as “little green leaf things!”
In fact, we used to get our herbs and spices confused too… But after putting cumin in our oatmeal one too many times, we couldn’t “dill” with the confusion anymore and set out to get our seasonings straight.
No, bay leaves and basil are not the same. They belong to different plant species and have distinct flavors and aromas. Bay leaves come from the bay laurel tree and have a subtle, herbal taste, while basil is an herb with a sweet, slightly peppery flavor. Both are commonly used in cooking but offer different culinary profiles.
- Back to the “Roots”: What Are These Herbs’ Histories?
- Profiling the Plants: How Do They Look and Taste?
- Herbal Healing: Are They Healthy?
- Culinary Questions and Tasty Tips: How Do I Cook With Them?
- Storing and Substitutes: How Long Do They Last and What Else Can I Use?
- Are Bay Leaves and Basil the Same?
Let us guide you through the enchanting world of bay leaves and basil . Despite their similar appearances, these two leaves are as different as night and day.
In fact, mistaking one for the other could lead to disastrous culinary consequences, affecting both your taste buds and your well-being.
But before we delve into their distinctions, let’s stroll through their captivating histories. After all, these herbs have been tantalizing taste buds for centuries, so there must be something truly fascinating about them.
Back to the “Roots”: What Are These Herbs’ Histories?
They say, “Variety is the spice of life,” but we tend to stick with what we like when it comes to actual spices. In our experience, even the easiest-to-please, least-picky eaters tend to have pretty clear taste preferences on spice.
While savory seasonings may or may not be your thing, the fact that basil and bay leaves have been used in cooking for centuries means there must be something appealing about these time-old herbs.
What are Bay Leaves?
Bay leaves, which grow on Laurel trees, were first cultivated in ancient Greece. Because of their importance in Greek mythology, they became a symbol of wisdom and protection. They were often used in crowns to honor scholars, athletes, and other accomplished heroes.
Imagine wearing a crown adorned with bay leaves like the ancient scholars and athletes of Greece – it’s a leafy symbol of honor and wisdom that leaves a lasting impression!
The two most common types of bay leaf trees today are the California bay leaf and the original Laurel tree (sometimes called the “Turkish” or “Mediterranean” bay leaf).
Bay leaves are native to Asia Minor and the Middle East and were first introduced to Europe by the Ancient Greeks. By the Middle Ages, they had become widely popular in Europe for flavoring and medicine.
Shortly after arriving in the Americas, European settlers began cultivating the leaves (hence the “California” bay leaf!), which is still a key ingredient in many Mexican and American dishes.
Now, let’s turn our attention to basil.
Originally from India, basil made its way throughout the Ancient world in pretty much the same way as bay leaves. As it spread, it gained some interesting associations…
- In India, basil was considered holy and used to worship Vishnu. It also became important in Ayurvedic medicine.
- The Ancient Greeks had contradictory ideas about basil, which they connected to hatred and harm and protection and healing, like curing reptile bites. (We’re pretty confused too, but that’s history for you!)
- In Egypt, basil was used in embalming since it was thought to help the dead enter the afterlife.
As an easy plant to grow and transport, basil spread far and wide. Today, the most popular basil are Thai basil, often used in Thai food, and sweet basil, often paired with tomatoes and used in Italian food.
Now that we’ve traversed their captivating pasts, let’s dive into their present-day profiles. When it comes to appearance and taste, bay leaves and basil couldn’t be more distinct.
Profiling the Plants: How Do They Look and Taste?
As we said, most fresh herbs look like “little green leaves.” Here’s a quick rundown on how to tell these particular two apart.
Picture this: Compared to most of their fellow herbs, bay leaves and basil both fall on the larger end of the scale. Imagine these robust leaves standing tall, with pointed ends and a rough texture, like nature’s little superheroes ready to add a burst of flavor to your culinary creations.
Ranging from 6 and 12 cm in length and 2-4 cm in width, these sturdy leaves boast a shiny, dark-green top and a paler, matte-olive underside when dried.
On the other hand, Basil leaves are somewhat shorter, more delicate, exuding a vibrant green color.
Close your eyes and inhale the sweet, minty notes of basil. It’s like a refreshing breath of fresh air on a summer’s day, instantly transporting you to the Italian countryside, where the scent of basil lingers in the warm breeze.
They have a waxy top texture, a subtle curve, and a more rounded middle section than bay leaves.
While the most common types of basil—sweet and Thai—are vibrant green, other varieties can be dark purple. Like bay leaves, basil also darkens to an olive green when dried.
Despite looking somewhat alike, the leaves are easy to tell apart on sight. (Well, at least when you know exactly what you’re looking for…)
But if visual details aren’t your strong suit, don’t worry. Here we’ll address how to tell apart their aromas and flavors.
Bay leaves are known for their woodsy, hearty aroma, intensifying as they dry. Their scent reminds many people of thyme and oregano, and their mild earthy flavor makes them popular in winter meals like soups and stews.
They can also be a great addition to curries and pot roasts since the long cooking time allows their flavor to infuse into the dish.
However, Basil is typically sweeter and fresher in taste, though different strains can vary pretty widely. Here are some of the most common flavor descriptions:
- Sweet, minty, and peppery
- Subtly-spiced and licorice-like
- A blend of citrus and spice.
While bay leaves are typically added to a dish during cooking, basil is often a topper for meals that are already cooked or don’t require cooking.
Another important difference is that basil loses its flavor when dried or cooked, the opposite of bay leaves.
Now, we must remember the health benefits of these herbal powerhouses. Packed with essential nutrients, both bay leaves and basil offer a range of goodness.
Herbal Healing: Are They Healthy?
Bay leaves, with their long-established reputation, continue to surprise us with their potential health benefits.
Like most edible “little green leaves,” bay leaves and basil are nutrient-dense, low-calorie, and packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Both can also help treat or prevent certain health conditions.
Here are some of bay leaves’ nutritional highlights:
- Iron: helps the blood carry oxygen and is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies
- Magnesium: promotes nerve, muscle, and bone health
- Vitamin A: boosts immunity, vision, and reproductive health
In ancient Greece, bay leaves were grown in healing gardens surrounding temples and used as an antivenom for poisonous bug bites.
Did you know that bay leaves were once used as antivenom in ancient Greece, protecting heroes and scholars from the venomous challenges they faced?
Today, studies suggest that these leaves continue to fight against modern-day foes like oxidative stress and foodborne bacteria. They’re believed to have antioxidant, antibacterial, and blood sugar-regulating properties, making them a valuable addition to your culinary arsenal.
In ancient Egypt, bay leaves were used to relieve headaches and fever. In old India, they became important in Ayurvedic medicine.
Bay leaves were also used as a healing tea during the Medieval period in Europe and later became a staple herb in aromatherapy.
Today, bay leaves are still believed to have many potential health benefits, such as:
- Protecting against oxidative stress caused by free radicals
- Having antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that fight foodborne illness
- Preventing or slowing the progress of certain cancers
- Helping to control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes
- Balancing cholesterol
Basil, too, boasts an impressive nutritional profile, containing a variety of vitamins and minerals that support overall well-being including:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin K
Imagine basil as your trusty sidekick, supporting your well-being with its arsenal of vitamins and minerals. From boosting blood flow to enhancing your mood, this herb is a silent hero in your quest for vitality. It’s no wonder that ancient civilizations associated basil with cleansing and healing practices.
Despite not understanding what we now know about basil’s health-boosting vitamins and minerals, ancient civilizations still connected the herb to cleansing and healing.
The Egyptians often used basil to help preserve bodies during embalming and mummification. In ancient India, the dead were often buried while holding basil, which they thought would help protect the deceased in the afterlife.
Other early cultures believed basil provided strength during religious fasting.
Like bay leaves, basil leaves are also associated with health and healing. Some of the basil’s health-promoting features are its potential to:
- Fight free radicals in the body
- Decrease the risk of developing diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.
- Improve blood flow and lower blood pressure
- Promote relaxation and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
Now that we’ve uncovered their captivating stories, appearances, aromas, and health benefits, let’s explore their culinary possibilities.
Culinary Questions and Tasty Tips: How Do I Cook With Them?
When it comes to cooking, sometimes the most flavorful meals are surprisingly easy to make. If you aim to impress your guests without stress, we’re here to help you hack these herbs!
So, now that we’ve established that bay leaves and basil are NOT the same, let’s look at why it matters.
- They are added at different points in the cooking process.
- They taste different.
- The amount of each you use is different.
- They need to be stored differently in the kitchen.
- One can be dangerous or toxic if misused!
If you remember one thing from this article (though we hope you remember more!), let it be this: fresh and dried bay leaves are added during cooking and removed before serving, whereas fresh basil doesn’t respond well to heat and is usually added as a finishing touch.
While the timing may not seem like a big deal, in this case, getting it wrong can be a recipe for disaster… Literally!
Bay leaves are known for how their aroma and flavor are infused into a dish, especially during a slow-cooking process. Basil, on the other hand, may wilt and lose its fresh “pop” if cooked.
Since bay leaves are so concentrated in flavor, a little goes a long way, and you don’t want to overdo it. This is less of a concern with basil, especially since the herb is usually added at the end of preparation, making it easy to adjust based on taste preference.
Also, we don’t want to scare you, but we’d be a lousy source if we didn’t mention that bay leaves can be dangerous when consumed.
Although some bay leaves can be toxic for humans, the type sold in grocery stores isn’t from poisonous plants.
But that doesn’t mean you should eat them; we strongly advise against it…
In addition to being flavorless and unappetizing, bay leaves can’t be digested. They may get lodged in your throat or scratch the lining of your intestines.
This warning may sound intimidating, but don’t let it scare you from trying to cook with bay leaves. As long as you remember to take the bay leaf out before serving, this flavorful herb can take your dish to the next level!
Since recipes with bay leaves usually involve slow cooking or sauce-simmering, it’s pretty easy to notice a bay leaf in the serving process. It also helps that most recipes only call for one leaf.
Here are a few types of dishes bay leaves go well in:
- Potato Bakes
- Meat Pies
- Pasta Sauces
Basil is more common and visible in recipes than bay leaves. Remember, bay leaves should not be visible on the plate when served!
Since fresh basil is best uncooked or cooked only slightly, recipes with basil usually fall into two categories: sauces/spreads/dips and recipes with a finishing touch or late-stage addition.
Here are some of our favorite ways to use basil in the first category:
And in the second category:
- Thai noodle dishes
- Light curries
- Pizza (try using pesto instead of marinara, and thank us later!)
- Fish dishes
- Deviled eggs
Fresh basil is also used to “spice” up many alcoholic beverages.
But if you’re trying to be “good,” you may want to go for water flavored with an herby flair, like the combination of basil, berries, and citrus.
So, go forth and explore the world of these remarkable leaves. Let your culinary creations be inspired by the wisdom of bay leaves and the refreshing charm of basil. With each dish, may you discover the wonders that lie within these humble, yet extraordinary, herbs.
Storing and Substitutes: How Long Do They Last and What Else Can I Use?
Like most herbs, bay leaves and basil can be fresh, dried, and frozen. That being said, though, there’s a pretty clear consensus that bay leaves are best dried, and when it comes to basil, the fresher, the better.
Bay leaves aren’t like salt or other spices, which you can sprinkle freely and just hope for the best. As we mentioned before, most recipes use only a single leaf!
Luckily, bay leaves are usually sold pre-dried and keep well for long periods. Dried leaves can last two to three years in the spice cabinet, though fresh leaves should be kept in the fridge (up to three weeks) or in the freezer (up to a year).
If you don’t cook with bay leaves often and are reluctant to buy them, some good replacements might be:
- Dried juniper berries
Since basil is best fresh, you don’t want to buy too much at a time. We recommend purchasing small bundles as needed and storing them on the counter with their stems in a small glass of water, or if their stems are too short, as a bundle in a loose plastic bag.
This lack of refrigeration may seem unusual, and it is—most herbs do better when washed, dried, and kept in the fridge. So what makes basil different?
Unlike most refrigerated herbs, basil isn’t a cold-weather plant. It grows in warm weather and lasts better in warm air even after being picked.
On the other hand, if you plan to use basil in a sauce, you can also freeze the leaves in olive oil in an ice cube tray for up to a year.
If you don’t happen to have fresh basil on hand, some possible replacements (depending on the recipe—use your best kitchen intuition here!) include:
Although bay leaves and basil may look like herb siblings, there are many cases where swapping them would not work, or at least not well.
Since basil is often used as a fresh garnish, replacing it with a bay leaf, which shouldn’t be consumed whole, is a bad idea.
Going in the other direction, using fresh basil instead of bay leaves might not be the best choice since cooking basil often weakens flavor. This is one of the rare situations where we recommend using dried basil instead of fresh leaves.
Are Bay Leaves and Basil the Same?
As two of the longer “little green leaves” we call herbs, bay leaves, and basil may look alike at first, but don’t let that fool you—they’re not as similar as you may think, and they’re certainly not a pair you’d like to mix up!
One of the main differences between them is that bay leaves should be used in the cooking process and removed before serving. In contrast, basil is often added right before serving. In terms of flavor, bay leaves are more “woodsy,” and basil is more “fresh,” this difference makes them pretty poor substitutes for each other.
So, now that you know how to tell these leaves apart and what to do with them, we recommend giving both a try and finding your flavor favorite!