There are many varieties of basil, the most common being sweet basil, native to tropical regions. We usually associate basil with Italian cuisine but the herb originates from Africa, Southeast Asia and India and that’s why it is so sensitive to frost and cannot survive outside in cold European winters.
Basil contains several essential oils which are responsible for its characteristic flavour and scent. These oils have a number of health benefits, for example anti-bacterial properties and helping to support your immune system. A few drops of basil essential oil diluted in water can act like a mild disinfectant as a scientific study has shown – washing fresh fruit and vegetables in this solution can significantly reduce infectious bacteria that can be found on fresh produce. It follows that adding fresh basil to your meals, especially those that aren’t cooked, such as salads, offers bonus heath protection.
One of the basil’s essential oil components is anti-inflammatory and can help to support your body’s healing processes. It may also offer mild relief with inflammatory health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions. These oils degrade quickly when exposed to high temperatures so it’s best to add basil to your meals near the end of cooking so it retains these precious compounds.
Basil is a great source of beta-carotene, the substance your body converts into vitamin A. It is a powerful antioxidant that protects your cells from potential damage caused by metabolic by-products, known as free radicals. A sufficient intake of beta-carotene helps to protect your tissues and is important for healthy vision.
Next on the long list of basil benefits are flavonoids – a type of antioxidants that have been shown to increase your cells’ defences against damage. They are so powerful that they can even make your DNA less vulnerable to radiation.
Basil leaves are an excellent source of vitamin K, essential for healthy blood clotting – particularly important for wound healing. However, high intakes of vitamin K could interfere with blood-thinning drugs, such as warfarin, so if you take those, don’t go basil-crazy.
Storing and preserving herbs
When choosing fresh herbs, always pick those that have supple green leaves, without any brown or discoloured spots. It’s best to then wrap them in a slightly damp cloth and keep in the fridge. That way, they will have enough but not too much water, and will be protected from drying out.
If you buy or grow larger quantities, freezing will preserve their nutritional value. Chop them and pack into ice cube trays, covering each portion with vegetable stock. Or use a food processor to coarsely chop the leaves, add a drizzle of virgin olive oil to lightly coat them, divide into ice cube trays and freeze. You can then use these frozen portions for anything from soups, stews, to pasta sauce and baked dishes.
Dried herbs are best kept in tightly sealed glass containers out of direct sunlight. Even though they keep for a long time, they only keep their full flavour for about six months.