When cooking, you’ll often have recipes for bay leaves and basil leaves. They look similar but have very different uses.
Bay leaves and basil are aromatic herbs that are typically used in savory dishes. The biggest difference, though, is that basil is left in the dish when consumed whereas the bay leaf is removed from the food.
Originally Published On: April 14, 2023
Bay Leaf: Laurus nobilis
Basil: Ocimum basilicum
A bay leaf is, well, a leaf. It’s the leaf of the Bay Laurel tree. Ever heard of a “crown of laurel” in ancient Greek for victors and athletes? Those were bay leaves or laurel leaves. The most common laurel plant used for bay leaves is found in the Mediterranean region.
Basil is in the mint family, similar to Lavender and Rosemary. Basil originates from Central Africa and Southeast Asia. It has flowers that look almost more like weeds of white. Most of the time, if you are growing these for the herbs, and they start to get so tall they flower, that’s called “bolting”. We have personally found that once a plant “bolts” it loses a lot of its flavor.
Bay leaves and basil leaves look similar, though they have very different tastes.
The bay leaf flavor is very subtle. They have a slightly floral flavor, similar to thyme and oregano. It is often used in meat dishes and other heavy meals when you want a woodsy flavor.
Basil has a warm, sweet flavor that’s often found in Italian cuisine. Because of being a member of the mint family, they will sometimes add a subtle minty flavor to your dish.
One of the biggest differences between basil and parsley comes in how they are used in a culinary sense.
Bay leaves are often found in foods that are slow-cooked. You’ll find them added to soups, stews, pasta sauces, and braised meals. A lot of people don’t think they add much, since they seem bland to smell, but you’ll also notice something seems missing without it. Though they don’t have a strong flavor, they add just enough to it.
Safety: Whole leaves, whether fresh bay leaves or dried bay leaves, must be removed from the dish before serving. They are not eaten whole. There are different varieties of bay leaves, and some can be poisonous. The ones used for culinary purposes are not poisonous leaves. But, they have no flavor if you bite into them. It will taste like you grabbed a leaf from outside and started to eat it.
Fresh basil leaves work well in recipes that are “fresh” in taste. Typically, basil is added at the very end of a recipe, often as a garnish, since cooking it can destroy the flavor. Unlike some herbs, the entirety of the basil plant can be eaten. The leaves are the most popular, but the flower and seeds are edible as well. Basil goes well in Italian cuisines as it is often in tomato-based dishes.
If you don’t want to grow the plants, you can also usually find the fresh herbs at the grocery store in the produce section. The dried herbs are also available with other herbs and spices.
Bay leaves can be purchased as a fresh bay leaf, dried bay leaf, or ground bay leaf. Basil can be purchased in its fresh form as leaves or as dried basil.
Bay Leaf Varieties:
- Bay Laurel
- California Bay Laurel or California Bay Leaf
- Indian Bay Leaf
- West Indian Bay Leaf
- Mexican Bay Laurel
- Sweet Basil
- Small Leaf Basil or Dwarf Basil
- Purple Leaf Basil
- Scented Leaf Basil
- Holy Basil
- Thai Basil
If needed, you can substitute basil for bay leaves, although bay leaves for basil will be very different in the meal. Just remember, basil can’t be added into the middle of cooking or it will lose its flavor if the leaves are fresh. When using dried basil, you can add it in earlier if needed, but fresh herbs usually taste better.
A good substitute for bay leaves includes thyme, oregano, basil, and juniper berries.
We use a lot of basil in our house and bay leaves more sparingly. We’ve grown basil in our garden, but since bay leaves grow on evergreen trees that doesn’t work well in our neighborhood. As such, I always have a jar of dried bay leaves in our spice cabinet.
Bay Leaf Recipes:
- Shrimp Scampi with Basil
- Thai Basil Pesto Flatbread
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes with Basil in Orzo Pasta
- Chicken Basil Cream
- Summer Basil Chicken and Shrimp Kabobs
You’ll find varying information about the nutritional value of bay leaves and basil leaves. The nutritional value changes whether it’s dried or fresh, and can vary based on which species of the plant is used.
One tablespoon of bay leaf (1.8g) provides 6 calories, 0.1g of protein, 1.4g of carbohydrates, and 0.2g of fat. Bay leaf also provides iron, magnesium, and vitamin A.1 This nutrition information is provided by the USDA: Calories: 6 Fat: 0.2g Sodium: 0.4g Carbohydrates: 1.4g Fiber: 0.5g Sugars: 0g Protein: 0.1g Iron: 0.8mg Magnesium: 2.2mg Vitamin A: 5.6mcg
Basil contains 1.6 calories per 0.7 g serving. This serving contains 0 g of fat, 0.2 g of protein and 0.3 g of carbohydrate. The latter is 0 g sugar and 0.3 g of dietary fiber, the rest is complex carbohydrate. Spices, dried, basil contains 0 g of saturated fat and 0 mg of cholesterol per serving. 0.7 g of Spices, dried, basil contains 0.26 mcg vitamin A, 0.0 mg vitamin C, 0.00 mcg vitamin D as well as 0.63 mg of iron, 15.68 mg of calcium, 18 mg of potassium.
Herbs have been used in medicine for thousands of years. You can find a plethora of information about how each has been used for a variety of ailments and medicinal uses all over the world.
Bay leaves have been used for diabetes, the common cold, high cholesterol, asthma, and many other conditions.
Basil has been used in the treatment of snakebites, colds, and nasal inflammation. It’s full of antioxidants and helps support a healthy liver. Basil has also been known to help protect against skin aging, reduce high blood sugar, and aid in overall cardiovascular health.
Grow Your Own
Depending on where you live, you may be able to grow laurel trees or basil in outdoor and indoor herb gardens. You’ll have to check the USDA zones to see what growing zone you are in and the growing season for these plants. For example, I live in a very warm climate so we have a longer growing season than many areas.
Bay can be grown in containers or free-draining soil. The evergreen shrubs are often used as ornamental plants in a garden. They can be shaped so gardeners and landscapers like them. They can handle some cold weather but will need to be covered or moved in during frost conditions.
Basil can be very finicky. You’ll do best to keep basil in a pot so you can bring it inside as soon as the weather cools down. It’s a summer plant and wants warm locations. You can grow it outdoors in the summer but will need to move it inside for the other seasons.
Both plants will want to be somewhere they receive full sun for optimal growth. In North America, this typically means you want them to be planted in an area that gets the afternoon sun on the south side of the home.
Bay plants do best when they are in soil that drains very well. If the ground stays too moist, the roots will start to get root rot which can kill the plant.
Basil prefers moist soil but it still needs to drain well. The best thing to do for basil is to add a layer of mulch to help keep moisture in the soil.
You’ll want to water your bay laurel plant often in the first year until the roots are established. After that, it should only need a little bit of watering during the hottest months of the year. Again, make sure it doesn’t stay waterlogged.
Basil can be freely watered as long as the soil will drain as needed.
Since bay laurel is an evergreen, it will grow year-round as long as it is properly cared for. You can trim leaves off as you need them for a fresh laurel leaf. You can also pull some leaves to dry and save them for future use.
When you harvest basil, make sure to never take away more than one-third of the plant. That could shock it and stunt its growth or kill the plant. Basil needs to be pruned often, especially early in the sprouting stage. The more you prune it, the more it will promote good growth.
Both plants can be dried by using a drying rack, a dehumidifier, or by hanging upside down in bundles. The drying process is very simple for both plants and will vastly extend their shelf life.
Oftentimes, you’ll find dried bay leaves in a bouquet garni which is used mostly in French cuisine. A bouquet garni is a bundle of dry leaves from a few herbs tied together and submerged in liquid for heavy soups and other slow-cooked meals.
12 thoughts on “Bay Leaves vs Basil Leaves: Uses in Cooking, Gardening, and More”
I found this article just in time for my herb garden planting. I already grow a bit of basil but I had no idea how to grow bay leaves – or how to use them. Thanks for this valuable information.
Your article on Bay Leaves vs Basil Leaves is incredibly informative and well-written! I love how you cover not only the culinary uses but also the gardening and health benefits of these herbs.
It is good to know the differences between spices and how they can be used. It is nice to have some ideas of their uses in cooking and beyond. I use basil a lot, but not bay leaves.
I really need to get a new box of bay leaves. I think I’ve had the same one since I got married (over 25 years ago!). I don’t use them often, obviously, lol.
Great article on the differences and similarities of bay leaves and basil leaves. I really didn’t know much about it before. I found the uses in cooking and gardening very informative and may add basil to my garden.
I remember my family always using a bay leaf to cook. They’d take it out at the last minute. I don’t cook homemade all of the time like they did, but I still remember so much of what they did!
I know nothing much about herbs, so this is very informative for me. I appreciate the information about bay leaves vs. basil leaves, and uses in cooking and gardening. I didn’t know that you can’t use basil in cooking. I’ll remember that, and I’ll have to try that sun-dried pizza with basil recipe! Thanks!
Thanks for sharing this blog post. Lots of information I didn’t know yet. I do love using both. I like to use basil when I make bruschettas, pesto, or pizza. And I love using bay leaves for my stocks and soups.
Ooohhhhh…I am glad to know that I can cook a meal for myself, using these leaves. I think I will begin by gardening some basils.
Your article just updates my knowledge about the leaves. The meals with these leaves are good too, imo.
Very informative! I learned new things about both basil and bay leaves. I will keep them in mind to help me in the future. Thank you for sharing!
I just planted a basil plant in my tower garden, and I can’t wait until it grows so I can use it in some new recipes!!