If you are not familiar with bay leaves and their uses, you may well wonder if you can use basil instead of bay leaves. Both are aromatic leaves, after all. And in food, many substitutions are common. Bay and basil leaves are used globally in various dishes and cuisines.
Bay leaves are available in many varieties, depending on where they grow. Basil, too, is of different types and the flavor of the basil, though similar, may be quite varied. For instance, Thai basil is quite different from the sweet basil, which is again different from holy basil that grows in India – there are as many 15 types of basil, and some have a very different flavor and even color, as you can even get basil that is purple.
How are Bay Leaves Different from Basil?
These are some of the differences in appearance, flavor and usage:
Bay leaves are quite big and may even be 3 inches or more long and flat, while basil leaves are shorter, with a somewhat rounded middle. Bay leaves are olive green while basil is a vibrant green. As there are many different kinds of bay and basil leaves, there so there are many variations in size and color.
Bay leaves have a woodsy, earthy, eucalyptus, cinnamon type of flavor, hard to describe. The aroma also depends on the variety of bay leaf that you get. The plant that grows in Europe is different from the one that grows in California, which is quite different from the one that grows in India. Basil has a sweet, minty and anise like flavor that gives a unique taste to anything it is put in, particularly when you use fresh leaves.
Bay leaves are used in rice and meat dishes, in soups and stews, in gravies that often use garam masala, and in some western sauces. They are typically discarded before the food is served as they are difficult to eat, being extremely fibrous. They are best added to foods in the beginning of the cooking process, so they release their flavors slowly. Indian bay leaves are quite different when compared to their counterparts from other countries and it is best not to substitute one kind for the other. For western dishes, the bay leaves from Europe or California work better whereas for Indian dishes, the Indian bay leaf (also called tej patta) will give you the flavor complexity that you want.
On the other hand, basil pairs well with tomato dishes, in pizzas and pastas, in salads and, of course, it is the main ingredient in the Italian pesto sauce. It is best used at the end of the cooking process as its flavor is best when it is fresh. It is quite edible and you can chew on basil leaves to freshen your breath as well.
Fresh or Dry?
Bay leaves are usually dried before they are used as they are rarely sold in the fresh form. The drying actually intensifies their flavor and enhances their shelf life. While you can get both fresh and dry basil, their flavor changes a great deal. It is always better to use fresh basil wherever possible. As some volatile oils of basil are lost during drying, you will not get the same flavor from dry basil as you would from fresh basil. If you cannot get hold of the fresh leaves, then use a small quantity of dry basil. Obviously, you cannot use dry basil, even reconstituted, to make pesto or add a fresh flavor to dishes.
Can you Substitute Bay Leaves for Basil or vice-versa?
As their flavor profiles and aromas are very different, it is best not to substitute one for the other. If you run out of bay leaves, or don’t have any, simply omit them. If you must, you can add a pinch of cinnamon to the dish, if you feel the taste of cinnamon goes well with the food. In western dishes, you may want to add some thyme (again if the flavor pairs with the food).
You cannot substitute basil with bay leaves for the same reason. If you don’t have basil, you can use a number of different herbs, depending on what you are cooking. You can use marjoram or oregano instead of basil.
It may surprise you to know that there are a few items that can use both bay leaves and basil together. For instance, in a bouquet garni, which inevitably uses bay leaf as one of the ingredients, you may also add some basil. In a pizza and pasta tomato sauce, you can add some bay leaves in the beginning and then discard them once the sauce is done. You can also use basil in the pasta or pizza, before serving.
Bay leaves are very different from basil leaves in all aspects. When you use aromatics, it is important that you use the right ones to get the flavors and end results that you want.