The Key Differences Between Basil and Sweet Basil


I was recently given a recipe by a friend that called for sweet basil. I was embarrassed to have never heard of it and wondered if regular basil would work. So I did some research on the topic and this article is the result of what I learned.

The key difference between sweet basil and other varieties is in its distinct pungent aroma and a sweet “clove-like” taste, thus the name. Technically known as ‘Genovese basil’ (Ocimum basilicum), it has large, dark green, shiny leaves. It is most commonly used in tomato-based dishes and in pesto.

Read on to find out more about sweet basil and meet some other members of the basil family. We will also compare a few types of this fragrant herb to determine which is best for cooking.

Is Sweet Basil and Basil the Same Thing?

Answering this question is much like answering the question, “is a tennis ball and a ball the same thing?” A tennis ball is undoubtedly a ball, but it is, more accurately, one of the many types of ball that life could throw at you. 

Sweet basil is one type of basil plant, so they aren’t precisely the same thing. Ocimum basilicum, part of the Lamiaceae or mint family, is a herb used in cooking worldwide, as well as for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. Most other types of basil are cultivars of Ocimum basilicum or sweet basil.

While sweet basil and basil aren’t technically identical, sweet basil is commonly known to many people simply as basil. 

Here are the key differences between sweet basil and basil:

LeavesFlavorAromaPlant Size
Sweet BasilMedium green, cupped leavesPepper, mint, anisePungent and sweet18-24 inches(45.72-60.96 cm)
BasilLarge, flat, dark greenSpicy, mint, cloveSpicy24-30 inches(60.96-76.2 cm)

As you can see, the differences are minimal, and chances are, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference when either of these were used in a sauce.

But what are the other types of this fragrant herb, and can you substitute them for the sweet stuff in cooking? 

Can I Substitute Basil for Sweet Basil?

So we’ve established that sweet basil is known to many people simply as basil. But what are the other types of this fragrant herb, and can you substitute them for sweet basil in cooking? 

You can substitute most types of basil for sweet basil in cooking. In some cases, the difference will be slight, e.g., using Italian large leaf rather than sweet basil. However, some types, such as Thai, holy and red rubin basil, are spicier or more intense, making the substitution more noticeable.

Those are just a few examples of basil cultivars. The next section of this article will look at the nine most common types and how their flavors differ from good old sweet basil. 

What Type of Basil Is Best for Cooking?

The best type of basil depends on the kind of food you’re cooking and your taste. 

Here are a few of the different flavor profiles of some common basil varieties: 

  • Sweet basil. The most common form of basil, sweet basil, is most commonly used in Italian cooking and has a mild, slightly sweet flavor with a hint of clove. While I use the term ‘cooking’ in this article, sweet basil is usually added last as exposing it to high temperatures diminishes its flavor. In pesto, it is ground or placed in a blender rather than cooked. 
  • Cinnamon basil. Also known as Mexican spice basil, this variety is sweet and has a cinnamon flavor that makes it ideal for baked goods and kinds of vinegar.  
  • Lemon basil. With a lemony scent and a slightly sweet, slightly tart flavor, this type of basil is commonly used in Indonesian cooking. 
  • Red rubin basil. With purple leaves rather than the more common green varieties, red rubin basil, sometimes known simply as red basil, tastes similar to sweet basil but is more pungent, making it less than ideal for pesto.  

Here is a table highlighting the ways different types of basil can be used in food:

Type of basil Type of Cooking Flavor profile 
Sweet basilItalian cooking, general cooking, garnishMild, slightly sweet, slightly minty
Thai basil Thai, Vietnamese and other forms of Southeast Asian cookingSpicy, slight licorice flavor
Italian large leaf basilNeapolitan Italian cooking, garnishThe mildest, sweetest form of basil
Greek basilSalad dressings, garnishStronger aroma than sweet basil, slightly peppery
Cinnamon basilTeas, baked goods, vinegarsHint of cinnamon and cloves 
Lemon basilIndonesian cookingLemony, sweet, tart
Holy basil South and Southeast Asian cooking Spicy, bitter, peppery
Red rubin basil Cooking (when a stronger flavor is required) or vinegarsPungent aroma and flavor

Thai Basil Vs Sweet Basil

Thai basil, also known as anise or licorice basil, has a spicier flavor than sweet basil. It is used throughout Southeast Asia and is a popular herb in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Its more robust flavor makes it a better fit for high-temperature cooking than sweet basil.  

Italian Large Leaf Basil Vs Sweet Basil

Italian large leaf basil is used in Neapolitan cooking more commonly than sweet (or Genovese) basil. This type of basil is slightly less peppery than sweet basil and, ironically, slightly sweeter. It is commonly used to make sauces and pesto.

Greek Basil Vs Sweet Basil

Greek basil is known for its smaller leaves and has a more potent aroma and flavor than sweet basil. Despite its name, it originates from Chile rather than Greece. It is known to be quite sweet and aromatic with flavors of anise, mint, and pepper.

Which Basil Is Most Fragrant?

Holy basil is the most fragrant variety of basil with it’s spicy, sweet, and musky scent. It is known as a bitter, peppery variety and is used in recipes throughout Asia. It is also one of the few types of basil that is better cooked than raw.  

This type of basil is known for its medicinal uses, with PubMed Central noting its use in Ayurvedic medicine and potential antidepressant properties.

What Is Another Name for Sweet Basil?

Sweet basil may be known as Ocimum basilicum if you’re a botanist or common basil if you’re one of many people who think the terms sweet basil and basil are interchangeable. But there is another name for sweet basil as well.

Sweet basil is sometimes called Genovese basil due to its everyday use in the Italian sauce pesto alla Genovese, a paste of basil, garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts. Genovese means that something (or someone) originates from Genoa, a region of Italy historically known as a center of maritime trade. 

While what most of us think of when we hear the word pesto – other than lunch – is basil pesto, otherwise known as Genovese pesto, there are many other types of pesto, with the word itself simply meaning ‘paste’ in Italian. Other popular types in Italy include pesto rosso, sundried tomato pesto, and pesto agli agrumo, or citrus pesto.

Where Can I Use Sweet Basil?

Row of Spices Including Sweet Basil

Other than the uses we’ve already covered, including its starring role in pesto alla Genovese, you can use sweet basil in cooking in various ways. 

Sweet basil is often used as a garnish on pizzas and pastas, added to tomato-based pasta sauces, used in butter and melted over steaks, infused in oil, and used as an ingredient in soups and stews. When used early on in the cooking process, the dry form of sweet basil may be preferable to fresh.   

Bottom Line

While the terms sweet basil and basil are often used interchangeably, the former is a variety of the latter, which is an entire category of herbs with many different cultivars. 

Sweet basil may be the most common form of the herb, particularly in the west, and is undoubtedly an integral part of Italian cooking. 

However, as shown in this article, some of the other types of basil play an essential role in cuisines worldwide, particularly in Asia, where several varieties are used.

Thanks for stoppin’ by!

For more, check out 18 Versatile Substitutes for Tomatoes in a Recipe.

Anne James

Hi, I'm Anne but my grandchildren call me Jelly Grandma. I have over 50 years of experience as a Southern cook and am a retired librarian. I love sharing what I have learned. You can find me on YouTube as well! Just click the link at the bottom of your page. I hope your visit here has been a sweet one.

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