When cooking your favorite Italian recipes, you will often come across basil. This flavorful herb is not only essential in Italian cooking, but also in many other recipes that would benefit from its peppery-mint flavor.
It’s easy to find basil in most stores, but if you find yourself out of it or if you don’t enjoy its taste, you will need one of our recommended substitutes for basil.
The best substitutes for basil
Basil is part of the mint family and its uses go far beyond cooking. For starters, this herb can also be used as a remedy for snake bites, but that’s just one of the many secrets of basil.
Basil has been around for so long that it’s now widely used in every part of the world, even though it’s mostly known for being a flagship in Italian cooking, especially for tomato-based sauces and pesto.
As with many herbs, basil has quite a unique taste. After all, when a recipe calls for a specific herb or spice, it’s usually because it really needs that specific something that this ingredient can bring.
With that said, it’s not impossible to find a replacement for basil, and actually, there are many alternatives that could fit a large variety of recipes that call for basil.
There is hardly anything you can’t do with parsley. This herb won’t perfectly replicate the strong and peppery flavor of basil, but it’s sure to enhance your dish in its very own way.
Parsley can be found in fresh and dried forms, but when you can choose, always opt for fresh parsley, because its dried form has lost most of its flavor.
Whole leaves can be added to salads as well, although they won’t really add much in terms of flavor.
Parsley is also a great garnishment for your dishes. Its leaves are bright green and have a jagged shape that appears extremely decorative on top of meatloaves, casserole, or even pizza.
For many of us, spinach will always be linked to the image of Popeye, who turned this vegetable into his very personal elixir of strength and taught a whole generation of kids the importance of eating more greens.
Indeed, spinach is packed with nutrients, but that’s not the only reason you should definitely use it as a substitute for basil.
Spinach is perfect for pesto because while helping you reach the desired shade of green, it will also mix very well with the other ingredients.
In fact, spinach is quite mild in flavor, so your pesto made with spinach will probably appeal even to those who don’t appreciate the intensity of basil, like children.
On top of that, spinach is great for texture, because it has a high water content which will make your sauces richer and creamier.
You can also use spinach leaves as a substitution for basil leaves when you need a garnishment for your dish.
Oregano, basil, and parsley are often treated as interchangeable in the kitchen, although they each bring a different kick to your dishes.
Known for being most people’s favorite pizza topper, oregano is actually quite versatile, and there’s barely any dish that wouldn’t benefit from a sprinkle of this herb.
Oregano can be found in both dried and fresh form, and its dried form is rather flavorful, unlike most dried ingredients.
As a fresh basil substitute, you can use oregano to top your bruschetta or your pizza. Oregano leaves are in fact quite similar to basil leaves, although smaller.
Instead, if you want to use oregano to substitute basil in cooking, you can use its dried form in casseroles, sauces, gravy, or as a topping for melted cheese.
Thyme comes from the same family as basil, so it’s the perfect basil replacement. There are more than a hundred varieties of thyme, each with its own characteristics.
Depending on what you’re trying to replace, be mindful of the ratio:
- To replace fresh basil, use double the amount of fresh thyme, but the same amount of dried thyme.
- To replace dried basil, use the same amount of fresh thyme, but half the amount of dried thyme.
This is important because the flavor of thyme is sharper than basil, and if you overuse it you risk overpowering your dish and making it unpleasant to eat.
5. Celery leaves
Celery is one of those vegetables known for its stalks, rather than its leaves. In fact, more often than not the leaves are simply discarded.
However, celery leaves are full of flavor, although of course, they don’t resemble the flavor of basil. So how can you use them as a basil alternative?
When you’re making pesto, which is one of the main reasons why you would use basil in the kitchen, you can use celery to tone down the flavor of basil. These leaves also provide the vibrant green color needed for the sauce.
Furthermore, when you need to use basil as a garnish, you can find a great basil leaves substitute in celery leaves. Just swap basil for celery and hardly anyone will notice the difference in your topping.
Coriander, or cilantro, is part of the same family as parsley, and indeed the two plants look almost identical.
The similarities, however, end with the appearance of their leaves, because cilantro and parsley have nothing in common in terms of flavor.
Cilantro is a very unique kind of herb, and actually, it’s considered a spice because of its peppery and lemony taste.
Needless to say, it doesn’t taste like basil but can be a good substitution for basil when you need a certain kick in your recipe.
Mint comes from the same family as basil and if you know anything about this herb, you might be wondering what kind of mint you can use as a substitute for basil leaves.
Spearmint and peppermint are the most widely used mint-flavored herbs, and to replace basil successfully you should use peppermint, which has the same peppery flavor as basil.
However, if you need to replace basil in desserts, dressings, or other cold recipes that don’t require cooking, mint will be just perfect.
Tarragon is not one of the most well-known herbs out there, but it’s actually pretty common in French cuisine and can be fairly versatile.
The flavor of Tarragon is very peculiar, as it has notes of licorice and anise. It goes without saying that this is one of those herbs that you either love or hate because of its distinct flavor profile.
However, we recommend the use of tarragon mostly for creamy sauces, tomato-based sauces, and salad dressings.
Rosemary has little in common with basil, except that it might be an even greater choice than basil when it comes to meat dishes. It tastes very woodsy and peppery, with notes of sage, citrus, and mint.
It is often paired with poultry, pork, lamb, and fish, but it also marries well with mushrooms, spinach, onions, and especially sweet potatoes, which are the most popular side dishes for meat courses.
The leaves of rosemary are too small to be used as a basil leaf substitute, but you can use this herb to successfully replace both fresh and dried basil.
Rosemary is one of the very few herbs that work well both in its dried and fresh form. That’s because fresh rosemary is already pretty dry, so even in its dried form it’s capable of retaining most of its flavor.
Sage leaves remind a little of basil leaves because of their color and shape, but they’re oblong and have a completely different texture.
This herb is known for its strong aroma, and its sharp flavor is a good basil substitute in recipes that revolve around meat and fish.
Just like rosemary, sage is another herb that retains much of its flavor even when dried. In addition, there is also a powdered version of sage, which is just as flavorful as the others.
You can use the three forms of sage interchangeably, and keep in mind that this herb mixes very well with tomato, so you can use it for your pasta sauce.
Arugula might not be the first option that comes to mind when you need an alternative to basil, but actually, it’s a very good replacement because it has a similar fresh and peppery flavor.
You can use arugula leaves as a substitute for basil leaves because this herb is mostly used for its bright green and long leaves.
It matches really well with spinach, so when you’re making pesto you can use the same amount of arugula as you would use basil, and mix it with spinach and other ingredients as well. The results will be pretty similar to the original.
Marjoram has a strong flavor with subtle sweet notes, and it belongs to the same plant family as oregano, even though they don’t share many similarities.
While basil is a perfect substitute for marjoram, the same cannot be said for the contrary. However, when you’re in a pinch and you’re out of options, marjoram will work as a good substitute for basil in stews and meat dishes.
It’s quite easy to swap one for the other: if the recipe calls for fresh basil, you can use the same amount of fresh marjoram; if it calls for dried basil, you can use the same amount of dried marjoram.
13. Lemon balm
If you’ve never heard of lemon balm before, you’re not alone. This plant is not yet that famous, despite its multiple uses in cooking and its benefits for the body.
Lemon balm is perfect for those recipes that call for basil, but also for lemons or a similar citrusy flavor, like fish dishes, salads, and poultry.
You can use lemon balm leaves as a replacement for fresh basil in a ratio of 1:1 in most recipes. You can also use lemon balm to replace lemon zest or lemon extract in sauces, soups, vinegar, and even some desserts.
14. Italian Seasoning
Italian Seasoning is a mix of spices and herbs that already contains a certain amount of basil, so it’s perfect to replace basil in most recipes that call for this herb.
Of course, as the name says, Italian Seasoning will work for all those Italian dishes that require basil, but you can also experiment and see if it works for other recipes.
Usually, there are many recipes that would benefit from Italian Seasoning, however, it’s always best to check if the list of ingredients already includes one of the herbs or spices included in the mix. In that case, you can replace it with Italian Seasoning without looking back.
As a general rule, this kind of mix works best for pasta sauces or tomato-based sauces.
15. Fresh basil
Are you using dried basil in your recipes? You might want to switch to fresh basil. Many people use dried basil because it’s convenient and easy to use, but you’re also missing out on most of the original basil flavor.
Basil can be used in whole leaves or chopped, and you might think that dried basil can save you some time and substitute chopped basil with little to no difference in taste. However, that’s not the case.
Dried basil loses most of its characteristic flavor and becomes really mild. This isn’t a problem in recipes that don’t require the full flavor of basil, but when you’re making pesto or pasta sauce, we absolutely recommend using fresh herbs.
How to choose a basil substitute
Basil is so versatile and popular that there is hardly any household that doesn’t always keep a little basil around.
However, if for some reason you’re left without, you can try one of the several basil substitutes available, as long as you take into consideration the type of dish you want to prepare:
- Pesto: the best alternatives to basil that will help you make a perfect pesto would be spinach, celery leaves, and arugula. Remember to use fresh basil when making pesto, because its dried form loses most of the flavor.
- Sauces: when you’re making sauces you can use most of the substitutes for basil, but when making pasta sauces, and especially tomato sauces, we recommend parsley, oregano, tarragon, sage, and Italian seasoning.
- Cooking: among all the replacements for basil, you can use rosemary, marjoram, and lemon balm for most meat- and fish-based dishes. Rosemary is great for side dishes as well, especially potatoes, spinach, and mushrooms.
- Salads: when you need a substitute for basil leaves, you can’t go wrong with arugula, parsley, and tarragon. Arugula is surely the best choice given its fresh and peppery flavor.
- Desserts: there are a few alternatives to basil you can use for sweet recipes as well, such as lemon balm, mint, and thyme. Lemon and thyme in particular go very well together in desserts.
- Garnish: in order to decorate your dish you will need herbs that have large and vibrant leaves like fresh basil. In this case, you can use parsley, raw spinach, celery leaves, and lemon balm leaves.
As you can see, even though the authentic basil flavor is hard to replace, there are many substitutes you can play around and experiment with when you go and prepare your next recipe, so trust the process and your creativity!