Substitutes for Thai Basil

Thai basil is revered for its unique flavor and aroma, a combination of sweet and spicy that adds a distinct touch to various dishes. It can be found in many Southeast Asian cuisines, most notably in Thai recipes such as curry, stir-fry, and salads. However, finding Thai basil can sometimes be a challenge, especially in areas where it is not commonly grown or sold. Therefore, identifying suitable substitutes for this herb can be essential to achieve a similar flavor profile when Thai basil is not available.

Several alternatives can be used to capture the essence of Thai basil in your cooking. These substitutes may not provide an exact match, but they will come close to replicating the desired taste and aroma in your dishes. Some of the most popular stand-ins include sweet basil, holy basil, and a combination of mint and cilantro. Each alternative brings its distinct qualities, and knowing which one to use in a particular dish can significantly enhance the final result.

In the paragraphs that follow, we will explore these individual alternatives in more detail, discussing their characteristics and the best ways to incorporate them into your cooking. With these substitutes at hand, you can confidently recreate the flavors and aromas of Thai basil, even if the original ingredient remains elusive.

Types of Basil

Thai Basil

Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) is a popular herb used in Southeast Asian cuisine, particularly in Thai dishes. It has a distinct anise-like flavor and a hint of spiciness. The leaves are narrow and dark green, with reddish-purple stems. Thai Basil is important in various dishes such as curries, soups, and stir-fries.

Holy Basil

Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), is a sacred plant in Hindu tradition. Its leaves have a unique peppery taste with a more pronounced clove flavor. Holy Basil has green or purple leaves and a slightly hairy texture. It is commonly used for medicinal purposes and teas, and also plays a role in Ayurvedic medicine.

Sweet Basil

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the most common variety of basil used in cuisines worldwide. It has a subtle, sweet taste with a mild peppery flavor. Sweet Basil features large, tender green leaves, and it is the primary ingredient in classic Italian pesto sauce. It is a versatile herb that can be used in a variety of dishes, including salads, pasta, and pizzas.

Italian Basil

Italian Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is similar to Sweet Basil but has larger leaves and a slightly milder flavor. It is often used interchangeably with Sweet Basil in Italian cuisine, particularly in tomato-based dishes or recipes that call for fresh basil leaves.

Lemon Basil

Lemon Basil (Ocimum americanum) is a unique variety of basil with a refreshing citrus flavor. This herb has pointed green leaves and a distinct lemony aroma. Lemon Basil is commonly used in Indonesian and Thai cuisine, offering a touch of citrus in recipes such as seafood dishes, soups, and salads.

Cinnamon Basil

Cinnamon Basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’) has a distinct cinnamon-like flavor and aroma, with copper-colored veins on its green leaves. This type of basil is used in various cuisines, including Mexican and Middle Eastern dishes, and is often added to teas, desserts, or cocktails for an interesting twist. Its warm, spicy flavor pairs well with fruit and adds a unique touch to many recipes.

Thai Basil in Cuisine

Thai basil is an essential herb in various Southeast Asian cuisines, including those of Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan. It is popular for its distinct aroma and flavor profile that combines sweetness and spiciness.

Southeast Asian Recipes

In Southeast Asian cuisine, Thai basil is frequently used in an array of dishes. Its strong flavor and fragrance make it a staple ingredient. Due to the variations in taste, Thai basil is typically not interchangeable with other types of basil, such as sweet basil or holy basil.

Stir-Fries

Thai basil is often incorporated in stir-fries for a burst of flavor. The herb is added towards the end of the cooking process to retain its unique aroma and prevent it from losing its bright green color. Some popular stir-fry dishes include Thai Basil Chicken and Thai-Style Beef.

Sauces

Thai basil plays a significant role in the preparation of various sauces used in Thai cuisine. It is particularly popular in fish sauce-based dipping sauces, where the combination of salty, sweet, and spicy flavors is enhanced by the basil’s unique fragrance.

Salads

In Thai salads, Thai basil adds a contrast to other strong flavors like fish sauce, lime, and chili. Commonly found in salads like Yum Woon Sen and Larb, Thai basil is sometimes used alongside other aromatic herbs such as mint, cilantro, and lemongrass for added depth and complexity.

Noodle Dishes

Thai basil is an essential addition to many noodle dishes in Southeast Asia. It can be found in dishes like Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, where it is added as a garnish alongside other herbs like cilantro and mint. In Thailand, similar noodle dishes such as Pad Kee Mao and Pad Thai may also include Thai basil as a key ingredient.

Green Curry

Green curry is a popular Thai dish that prominently features Thai basil. It is a spicy and aromatic curry made from green chilies, lemongrass, and galangal, among other ingredients. The use of Thai basil in green curry enhances its flavor and provides a unique aroma that sets it apart from other curries.

While some might suggest using oregano as a substitute for Thai basil, the flavors are quite different. Oregano has a more pungent, earthy taste, whereas Thai basil boasts sweet and spicy notes. It is essential to choose the most suitable substitute based on the specific dish being prepared.

Substitutes and Flavor Alternatives

Sweet Basil

Sweet basil is a popular substitute for Thai basil, as it has a somewhat similar flavor profile. While it lacks the distinct licorice and anise notes of Thai basil, sweet basil can be used in many Thai dishes without significantly altering the taste. When cooking with sweet basil, it is crucial to keep in mind that it has a milder and sweeter taste compared to Thai basil.

Italian Basil

Italian basil, also known as Genovese basil, is another suitable substitute for Thai basil. It has a strong aroma and flavor, which can provide a distinct taste in dishes. However, this herb does not have the same spicy or licorice notes as Thai basil, so it may slightly change the flavor profile of a dish.

Cilantro

Cilantro is commonly used in various cuisines, and its fresh, citrusy flavor can be a good alternative to Thai basil. Although cilantro does not have the licorice or anise tones, it adds a unique taste that complements many recipes, such as savory sauces or soups like pho.

Mint Sprigs

Mint brings a refreshing, cool taste to dishes, making it an interesting substitute for Thai basil. A combination of mint and other herbs such as parsley or oregano can create a layered, complex flavor that mimics the depth of Thai basil.

Lemon Basil

Lemon basil’s bright, citrusy quality can offer a distinct flavor to dishes in place of Thai basil. Its subtle peppery undertones and lemony aroma make it an interesting substitute, especially in recipes that benefit from a zesty accent.

Tarragon

With its licorice and anise notes, tarragon comes close to replicating the flavor of Thai basil. It can be an effective substitute in many dishes, contributing a distinct taste without deviating too far from the original flavor profile.

Star Anise

Star anise provides a strong, punchy licorice flavor that can substitute for Thai basil’s unique licorice notes. As a potent alternative, star anise should be used sparingly to avoid overpowering the dish.

Fennel

Fennel, a bulbous vegetable with a sweet, licorice-like taste, can be used as a substitute for Thai basil. The leaves and seeds both offer a flavor that mimics Thai basil’s licorice notes, making it suitable for inclusion in recipes where Thai basil is called for.

Spinach

In dishes where Thai basil acts as a garnish or adds color and texture rather than flavor, spinach can serve as a mild and versatile substitute. While it may not deliver the same unique taste that Thai basil offers, spinach ensures the dish retains its visual appeal and some degree of leafy green texture.

Tips for Cooking with Thai Basil Substitutes

Using Substitutes in Dishes

When substituting Thai basil with other herbs, select suitable alternatives such as Italian basil, sweet basil, or lemon basil depending on the dish’s requirements. It is essential to understand the characteristics of each substitute to effectively mimic Thai basil’s unique flavor and aroma in various dishes. For example, Italian or sweet basil can be used in stir-fries and curries to provide a minty and mild pungent taste, while lemon basil adds a citrusy note to salads and seafood dishes.

Adjusting Quantities

To achieve the desired flavor profile, you may need to adjust the quantity of the substitute herb. Generally, using a slightly larger amount of Italian or sweet basil compared to Thai basil is recommended due to their milder flavors. In contrast, use lemon basil sparingly as it has a stronger citrus flavor that can overwhelm the dish if used in excess. When using dried substitutes like anise seed or ground evergreen tree, start with a smaller quantity and gradually adjust to taste.

SubstituteRecommended Ratio
Italian Basil1.5:1 (compared to Thai basil)
Sweet Basil1.5:1 (compared to Thai basil)
Lemon Basil1:1 (compared to Thai basil)

Incorporating Aroma and Flavor

Thai basil, or Ocimum basilicum, is a member of the Lamiaceae family and has a distinct smell and taste. To capture its signature aroma and flavor when using substitutes, consider the cooking process. Add the herbs at the end of cooking to retain their aroma and impart their flavor to the dish. Additionally, pair the substitutes with complementary ingredients like mint, spicy chilies, or garlic to bring out their essence and replicate Thai basil’s unique qualities.

Preserving Fresh Herbs

To maintain the freshness and potency of your Thai basil substitutes, proper storage is crucial. Store fresh herbs like Italian basil, sweet basil, or lemon basil in the refrigerator with their stems submerged in a glass of water and covered with a loose plastic bag. Change the water every couple of days to prolong the herbs’ lifespan. For dried alternatives, keep them in an airtight container away from direct sunlight and heat sources to preserve their aroma and flavor.

Availability and Shopping for Thai Basil Substitutes

Asian Markets

When searching for Thai basil substitutes, you may want to start by checking your local Asian markets. These stores often carry a range of Asian herbs and spices, increasing the likelihood that you will find a suitable alternative. For example, it is common to find sweet basil and Italian basil in most Asian markets, which can be used as substitutes for Thai basil in certain recipes. Additionally, these stores may carry other herbs from the Indian subcontinent that have a similar flavor profile to Thai basil.

Supermarkets

In general, supermarkets may not have the same variety of herbs as specialized Asian markets. However, they may still have some Thai basil substitutes in stock. You’re likely to find sweet basil and Italian basil in the fresh produce section in most supermarkets. These two varieties are the closest in taste to Thai basil and can be used in many recipes to achieve a similar flavor.

Online Stores

For those who would rather shop from the comfort of their homes or have limited access to Asian markets and supermarkets, ordering Thai basil substitutes from online stores is a viable option. Several e-commerce platforms offer a wide selection of herbs, making it easy to find the right substitute for your culinary needs. Some popular online stores that carry Thai basil substitutes include:

  • Amazon: Offers both dried and fresh Thai basil alternatives, such as sweet basil or Italian basil.
  • iHerb: Provides a variety of dried basil products, including sweet basil and Italian basil.
  • Mountain Rose Herbs: A specialist store that sells a variety of herbs, including sweet basil and Italian basil.

Remember to always read reviews and check product descriptions to ensure you are purchasing the correct Thai basil substitute for your recipe.

Thai Basil Substitutes

Here are great options for Thai Basil in your recipes
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 15 minutes
Total Time 15 minutes
Course Seasoning
Cuisine Asian
Servings 4
Calories 1 kcal

Equipment

  • Large bowl
  • Cutting board
  • Sharp knife
  • Measuring Cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Blender
  • Spatula

Ingredients
  

  • 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh chives
  • 1/4 cup fresh tarragon leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves

Instructions
 

  • Wash all the herbs thoroughly and pat them dry with a paper towel.
  • Chop all the herbs finely and place them in a large bowl.
  • Using a blender, blend all the chopped herbs until they form a smooth paste.
  • Transfer the herb paste to a clean, dry container and refrigerate it until ready to use.

Nutrition

Calories: 1kcal
Keyword Thai basil substitute
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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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