We all get the urge to try new recipes and sometimes do not have all of the ingredients. It can seem like you just have to stop and find a new recipe, but what can you use instead?
Basil is from the mint family and has a pungent taste, like anise but sweeter. It is native to tropical regions of Central Africa and Southeast Asia, although we may be more familiar with using it in Mediterranean dishes. So finding a substitute for basil can be as easy as finding similar herbs with similar taste profiles.
Hopefully we can convince you to not only grow your own fresh herbs, but to consider the harvesting and drying to enable a wider range of flavor and taste.
Potential Substitutes For Fresh Basil
Fresh basil has a gentle taste profile and it will not be missed if you don’t have any available for a garnish. However if you are looking to make a pesto for the family meal you may need to think of what to substitute in it’s place.
- Spinach leaves can be great for keeping that vibrant color in pesto. So if the kids don’t like the pungent taste of basil mix it 50/50 with spinach. If you have run out of basil or are looking for a cheaper alternative then go all out for spinach. If you intend to mix it in with sorrel, then leave out any lemon in the recipe as sorrel has a very lovely strong flavor. Spinach can also be fast to grow and basil and spinach make good companion plants. Packed with nutrients spinach makes a great substitute in a classic pesto that you can make in the food processor at home.
- Nettles are nutrient rich and full of the same zing that you get from basil. Nettles are also free. So if you are not confident with growing your own basil, but you know a local woodlands, than foraging for food is free. You do need to be aware that foraging in the UK is lawful, but uprooting plants is not. If you intend to sell on your nettle pesto that is a big no no unless you grow your own. Let’s face it, we can all grow our own nettles! The other benefit of growing your own nettles is that you are creating a wonderful habitat for wildlife, but also you are a bit more in control of any passing dog and their toilet habits! Make sure to wash the nettles thoroughly and prepare them int eh same way as spinach, just wearing gloves at the same time! A nettle pesto is a nice alternative to basil pesto, and again there is nothing to stop you mixing the leaves 50/50.
- Mint leaves can be used sparingly to replace basil. The mint plant covers a huge range of plants in fact. So the one I am referring to here is the mentha, basil sits in the same family and we use them interchangeably. I would advise that with mint leaves a little goes a long way. So use sparingly and enjoy that fresh zing. Perhaps incorporate some of these other fresh herbs as well. You can use dried mint leaves to take the edge off of the intense flavor.
- Oregano / Marjoram both have a pungent earthy flavor that makes me think of Italian cuisine. Oregano is a key ingredient of both Herbes De Provence and Italian Seasoning, so it makes sense to use it in place of Basil. The fresh leaves make a wonderful garnish for tomato dishes or pizza alike. We try to mix it up and give options for both as the kids find it so easy to grow their own herbs. You can buy oregano as a living herb from the supermarket and repot to great success, or you can grow from seeds and plugs.
- Thyme is another wonderful herb to eat fresh. You can mix it with spinach or nettles in pesto as a substitute for basil, or use the leaves as a garnish. The taste of thyme is also pungent and earthy with a little minty kick behind it. If a recipes requires basil in a stew or casserole you can add thyme in the same quantities.
- Lovage leaves have a very similar taste to celery and are a zingy, but savory flavor. You will find that lovage is easy to grow, even preferring a shaded spot to direct sunlight. It will grow to be around 5-6 feet high so is very pleasant in the garden. The leaves can be harvested as needed and used to make pesto or as a garnish. Lovage is a great replacement for basil as the leaves are verdant and tasty, perhaps add in some thyme and oregano as well.
- Parsley is a wonderful garnish and will go well with tomato dishes or salads alike. We swap it for basil in many places, but if you want a tasty pesto you can mix it with lovage or nettles. Parsley has a taste that is peppery in the background, but it’s overwhelming flavor is to bring out the taste in others. It’s almost a palate cleanser. So this makes it perfect in partnership with other herbs and spices, in much the same way as you would expect from basil.
- Fennel has an aniseed flavour and you will find it easily matched to replace basil, albeit in smaller quantities. A little goes a long way when it comes to the herb fennel, so pair it with nettles or spinach for a vibrant taste.
- Coriander can be a good substitute for basil, unless you are one of the many who think that it tastes like soap! Then avoid it.
- Sorrel tastes like lemony spinach and as such the astringent flavor needs only small quantities added. If you are pairing it with nettles or spinach to make a pesto, dial it down a lot. If we replacing basil then we can easily halve the portions here. Packed with nutrients sorrel is a bit of an unsung hero in your herb garden!
What To Substitute Dried Basil With
- Italian Seasoning has basil in it. So check out the entire recipe to see what other herbs are needed. If they are Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano then just scale up the Italian Seasoning and miss out the other herbs.
- Thyme is just as great dried as basil and will be useful as a substitute in most dishes. If used for seasoning meats or roast vegetables you may want to add some fresh herbs towards the end of cooking as well.
- Rosemary can be a great herb when dried and the taste profile changes to more closely match that of basil. They are both in the mint family and therefore you will find a cross over with that earthy flavor.
- Fresh basil will be just as effective as dried, but you will need a little bit more fresh. The flavor of basil is intensified when it is dried and therefore fresh basil will not pack such a punch. So be aware that the fresh will wilt and a lot does not go very far!
- Fresh sage can be a stronger flavor than dried basil. So mix the quantities up and use a little less. Sage is pungent and earthy and will bring out the taste of the dish you are working with very nicely.
- Fresh lemon balm is perfect if a dish calls for basil and lemon. This way you can achieve both, I would still include the lemon separate as this is an integral aspect of the dish. But being from the mint family, lemon balm has lovely tasty green leaves that are similar to basil, with a citrus kick.
- Cilantro / Coriander leaves are a little bit minty, a little bit lemony and a little bit peppery. Very similar in profile to basil. One word of caution is that some people have the gene that makes the soapy taste of coriander really stand out. I am one of them and having coriander in my tea would affect me greatly!
Growing your own herbs is cheaper than you may think, so why not give that a go? You can dry them yourself as some herbs do develop a different flavor once dried. Feel inspired to try a few of these and substitute basil from your meals with other homegrown herbs.