Using fresh herbs can be intimidating if you’re not used to them, but they add an incredible amount of character and substance to your cooking that it’s well worth investing the time to experiment.
Two of the most universally popular herbs are basil and parsley. They’re both very prominent in Italian cuisine, but can be used in a wide variety of recipes and styles of cooking.
But what is the difference between basil and parsley? Basil, which has large, rounded leaves, adds an almost minty freshness to both sweet and savory recipes. Parsley has small, jagged leaves and has a more bitter, grassy, and almost spicy flavor that subtly brightens savory dishes.
These two herbs look, smell, and taste different and we’ll explore the difference between them in depth below.
What Is Basil?
Basil is a very flavorful and fragrant member of the mint family.
It is a very bushy plant with large, glossy, elliptical leaves with a small pointed end. Each leaf rounds in on itself, and the veins are quite pronounced.
Basil plants will grow several branches, usually in pairs, each with a cluster of leaves.
If the tops of each stem are tipped, or cut off, they will stop growing upwards and start to grow more individual branches, filling out in a bushier fashion.
Basil is particularly popular in Italian cooking, but it plays an important role in Asian cuisines as well.
Basil is most famous for being the star ingredient in pesto, a richly flavored spread or sauce. It’s also frequently used in Caprese salads or to bring complexity to pasta sauces, both tomato-based and creamy.
There are many different species of basil plants, with sweet basil being the most common and popular category, though it can also be separated into many different individual types.
Basil is one of the more common herb plants to grow in an indoor herb garden because it’s quite easy to grow.
It can be bought by the plant in grocery stores, or in bunches of fresh leaves. Basil can also be dried and available in the spice aisle.
What Is Holy Basil?
Holy basil is a very specific variety of basil that has become rather famous in recent years for its supposed medicinal purposes.
If you purchase holy basil planning to use it like the more conventional sweet basil you may be accustomed to, you may want to think twice.
Holy basil is more commonly used as an extract, tea, or supplement. It’s rarely used as an herb for flavoring your favorite recipes. It has a much stronger, almost abrasive flavor.
It’s quite peppery with notes of anise and clove. Some even describe a somewhat metallic taste, comparing it to aluminum foil.
What Does Basil Taste Like?
Basil is identified as much by its smell as its taste. It’s a member of the mint family, which is very obvious when you’re close enough to smell the plant and even more so when you taste its cool freshness that has a hint of pepper.
This herb is a perfect balance between sweet and savory, and can easily be used in either type of recipe. In addition to mint and pepper, basil also has subtle hints of anise, or black licorice.
When you’re new to basil, you’ll likely find a little goes a long way. Those who have a long relationship with the herb, however, are similar to passionate garlic-lovers: it goes in and with everything and there is no such thing as too much.
There are also unique varieties of basil that are named for the addition of a dominant flavor, such as lemon basil or cinnamon basil.
What Is Parsley?
Parsley is one of the most common worldwide herbs, used in recipes as diverse as fresh salads and soups to rich sauces and casseroles.
It’s also a lovely touch to any dish when used as a garnish.
Parsley was initially popular in European and Middle Eastern cuisines, but it has since been appropriated by nearly every type of cuisine you can find on earth.
The bright, herbaceous taste is complementary to a variety of flavors, making it easy to adapt to any style of cooking.
Parsley is a member of the mint family, and there are many different types to choose from.
The four most common varieties are:
- Curly leaf
- Japanese parsley
- Hamburg or parsley root
Flat-leaf parsley varieties have fragile, broad, flat leaves with serrated edges. They typically have 3 distinct leaflets on each main leaf and multiple leaves per long, thin stem.
Though flat-leaf parsley is by far the most popular variety, especially in North America, there are subtle differences in how different varieties of the plant look.
Curly parsley, as you may expect, has curly leaves that look like ruffles. Japanese parsley is more substantial, with thicker stems that are often consumed on their own.
What Is Italian Parsley?
Italian parsley is the most common flat-leaf variety of parsley, which makes it the most common parsley overall.
The entire green herb can be used, including the stem. Making an herb bundle is one of the most popular ways to use fresh parsley, especially in flavoring soups or sauces.
The stems can be tied off with culinary twine and the bundle can simmer in the liquid, draining all its flavor into the dish. Before serving, the bundle is removed.
When used as a flavoring for other types of recipes, the leaves are usually stripped from the stem and roughly chopped. They can also be arranged artfully to garnish a dish.
Italian parsley is also frequently dried, available on its own in the spice aisle or as one of the most integral flavors of Italian spice mixes.
What Does Parsley Taste Like?
Because parsley looks quite similar to cilantro, many people ask if parsley tastes like cilantro or even whether parsley and cilantro are the same thing.
The simple answer to both is no, they don’t taste alike, beyond both being herbaceous in flavor, and they’re certainly not the same thing.
Parsley has a bright, clean flavor that is often used as a palate cleanser or to cut through the heaviness of cream-based sauces. Italian parsley specifically has a somewhat bitter, tangy edge to it with notes of pepper.
Parsley, especially the more bitter varieties, are not consumed on their own and even as a garnish are usually set aside during the meal, unlike basil, which can be enjoyed as a freshening bite on its own.
Other varieties of parsley taste slightly different, just as they look slightly unique from the most conventional variety.
Curly parsley is mild in flavor, whereas Japanese parsley is much more bitter. Hamburg parsley, or parsley root, is rarely used for its greens at all.
When to Use Basil Vs Parsley
As you’ve now learned, basil and parsley are both very popular leafy green herbs that can be used in a variety of cuisines types and cooking styles, though they’re both crucial to Italian cuisine, in particular.
The two herbs are often used in many of the same dishes, but their flavors are so different that you can dramatically change the outcome of a recipe by mixing the two up.
In some ways, basil is more versatile because it can be used in both savory and sweet applications.
On the other hand, the flavor of parsley incorporates more seamlessly into a wider variety of recipes and it’s also easy to use as a garnish in nearly any savory dish.
Let’s take a closer look at the most common uses for each herb.
Uses for Basil
If you have tomatoes in a recipe, it’s almost guaranteed that basil will be a complementary flavor, as it helps temper the acidity.
This is one of the reasons it’s commonly used in pasta sauces, helping to balance and mellow out the flavors.
Basil also pairs well with olive oil, balsamic, and garlic, each strong flavors on their own that balance well together.
This versatile herb can also be used for sweet dishes, particularly with fresh fruits and berries. Basil and strawberries are a common combination that tastes equally delicious with watermelon, citrus fruits, or pit fruits like mangos or peaches.
To combine the world of sweet and savory, try using basil with a balsamic vinaigrette.
To get the most flavor from your basil, rip the leaves rather than chopping them. This will help release the natural oils, bringing forth the fragrance and providing the strongest taste.
Whenever you’re cooking with basil, add the herb at the end of the cooking process. This will help maintain as much flavor and nutrition as possible. If basil is cooked too long, the flavor will disappear as the volatile oils will dissipate.
The exception to this rule is when you’re using dried basil. Dried basil needs time to soften up so that the flavors can be released into the other ingredients, so it should be added to the recipe at the start of the cooking process.
Uses for Parsley
Parsley is also common in tomato-based pasta sauces but isn’t as likely to be found paired with fruit.
The flavor profile of parsley enhances the complexity of a recipe but doesn’t stand out on its own, as basil does.
The grassy notes of this herb are more similar to the common flavor of green vegetables, so it blends well while still elevating the overall flavor of a savory recipe.
Parsley is a great addition to a blend of other spices, but it doesn’t have the power to stand up well on its own. For sauces or marinades, try combining it with oregano, thyme, rosemary, or, of course, basil.
This herb is better suited to adding flavor to ground meat, such as meatballs or meatloaf.
It won’t overwhelm the natural richness of the meat like basil will, but it will help season the dish and bring more depth and interest to the overall result.
Of course, parsley can also be used as a garnish to add interest to your dishes.
What Is Basil Pesto?
Classic basil pesto is a dip, spread, or sauce made from a large amount of basil pureed with garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and sometimes parmesan cheese.
It’s an Italian condiment that can be used in many different ways, bringing bursts of bright, fresh flavor to freshly baked bread, pasta dishes, pizza, and more.
When making pesto, it’s important to stick with fresh ingredients. Dried basil or garlic will not bring the flavor, color, or texture needed to make a beautiful pesto.
Equally important is full-bodied, high-quality olive oil. You will taste the difference. If you decide to use parmesan, splurge for some aged Parmegiano-Reggiano to really boost the flavor.
Pine nuts are already decadent enough, but toasting them just slightly before adding them to the mix brings out their nutty flavor and rich, buttery texture.
If you don’t care for basil, there are a few alternative herbs, including parsley, that make a good substitute for basil in pesto, though non-traditional.
What Is Cow Parsley?
Cow parsley is a relative of conventional parsley, though not the same plant. It grows natively throughout Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa.
It has similar leafy green fronds like parsley and grows clusters of small white flowers. It can be somewhat dangerous to forage because it looks very similar to poison hemlock and fool’s parsley, both of which are toxic.
Cow parsley itself is safe to eat and has a nice, sharp flavor. You can certainly taste the resemblance to parsley, but there’s also a touch of carrot greens.
Is Parsley a Vegetable?
Parsley is most commonly used as an herb or garnish, but that doesn’t make it any less of a vegetable than its relative, carrots.
Not many people realize parsley can also be cultivated for its root, which looks very similar to a parsnip and is used in all the same ways celery root is used.
The root of parsley is more obviously a vegetable, but most people are only familiar with the leafy green tops.
Vegetables have a relatively loose definition, being any part of a plant that is used as food. True, not many people would make a meal of parsley, but it is eaten as food.
The definition of an herb is more strict, being restricted to plants with leaves, seeds, or flowers that are used for flavoring or food.
To summarize, parsley is a vegetable, but you wouldn’t be wrong in naming it an herb either.