With its spicy-sweet flavor reminiscent of cinnamon and cloves, cinnamon basil is an intriguing and versatile herb with a distinctive taste, aroma, and color, that sets it apart from other basil varieties. Its dark leaves and purple stems provide visual appeal while its flavor perfectly balances sweet and savory dishes.
What is Cinnamon Basil?
Cinnamon basil (also known as Mexican basil), is a variety of Ocimum basilicum, with a pleasantly spicy twist to the sweet basil commonly found in Western cuisine.
Featuring narrow, slightly serrated, dark green leaves with reddish-purple veins and dark purple stems, cinnamon basil brings a pop of color to your garden. This annual plant thrives in containers and garden beds given adequate sunlight and water.
In the kitchen, cinnamon basil’s sweet and versatile flavor shines in Mediterranean dishes. It has an enticing cinnamon essence, which goes with both sweet and savory dishes.
Its potency mellows once cooked, allowing it to complement other flavors without overpowering them.
Originally from India, cinnamon basil made its way across the globe, first reaching the Mediterranean and Europe, where the Ancient Romans used it as a digestive aid.
Eventually, the herb found its way to Mexico where it’s known as albahaca. The warm climate in Mexico, combined with the herb’s adaptability, allowed it to thrive in its new environment.
Cinnamon basil is prized for its unique flavor profile, which can be attributed to its rich content of methyl cinnamate, setting it apart from its relative, sweet basil.
When fresh, the leaves give off a very strong, sweet aroma of cinnamon, cloves, and anise. Simply brushing against the plant releases this intense spicy fragrance.
The taste of cinnamon basil has dominant notes of cinnamon, clove, licorice, and subtle pepper undertones.
Compared to traditional basil, cinnamon basil adds a warmer, spicy flavor to your dishes.
When cooked, these strong flavors mellow into a milder, more balanced sweetness. This makes cinnamon basil a versatile addition to various dishes without overpowering them.
Using cinnamon basil in cooking
The complex flavor profile of cinnamon plays well with fruits, vegetables, beans, sauces, juices, and more.
When using cinnamon basil in cooking, add it at the end and avoid prolonged cooking times. This preserves the volatile oils and prevents the flavors from dissipating.
The leaves can be chopped into a rough chiffonade cut or left whole for garnish. A little goes a long way due to the strong taste.
For savory recipes, basil combines wonderfully with curry powders, garlic, ginger, coconut milk, lentils, and chickpeas. Cinnamon basil also infuses its essence beautifully into pesto, herb butters, and oils.
On the sweet side, cinnamon basil pairs nicely with stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots. It adds fall flair to baked apples, poached pears, and pumpkin dishes. The flavor even complements berry compotes, fruit salads, lemonade, and cocktails.
Other uses for cinnamon basil
Aside from being an aromatic culinary herb, cinnamon basil also has many uses around the home.
When dried, the foliage and blooms retain their fragrance well for potpourri crafts and herbal sachets. Mix dried cinnamon basil leaves with other fragrant flowers and spices to create aromatic blends that fill your home with a delightful scent.
Its visually striking leaves and flowers make cinnamon basil a beautiful ornamental plant for containers and gardens. The deep green leaves with hints of purple pair nicely with colorful blooms.
It also produces small purple flowers that bloom from July to September. These flowers add a touch of color to the already striking combination of green and purple on the plant.
When planted outdoors, cinnamon basil attracts beneficial pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to gardens. The tubular purple flowers produce nectar that these insects feed on.
Its strong aroma can also deter pests from other nearby plants, making it valuable as a companion plant.
Growing cinnamon basil
Thriving in tropical and subtropical climates, cinnamon basil is an easy-to-grow herb that demands six to eight hours of bright sunlight daily. While classified as an annual, it can be a perennial in USDA plant hardiness zones 9-11. Furthermore, planting cinnamon basil near tomatoes and roses has been known to discourage pests such as whiteflies – an added bonus to your garden.
First, choose a location with well-drained soil and ensure it receives at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. If you are planting cinnamon basil in a container, make sure there’s enough space for the roots to grow.
In case your garden has heavy or clay-like soil, enrich it by adding compost or well-rotted manure. This will improve drainage and provide nutrients for your cinnamon basil.
You can start growing cinnamon basil either from seeds or small plants. To plant the seeds directly in the garden, wait until all frost danger has passed, usually in spring. For a head start on the growing season, you can also start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost.
If you choose to buy small plants, simply transplant them to your garden or containers when the weather is warm.
When it comes to watering, cinnamon basil prefers moist yet free draining soil. Keep an eye on the moisture levels, especially during hot summer days, and adjust your watering accordingly. Overwatering can lead to root rot, so ensure there’s proper drainage.
For indoor growth, pick a bright and airy location. Make sure it doesn’t get too dry and that your cinnamon basil gets sufficient sunlight daily. You can grow it indoors year-round, just ensure the space meets the required conditions.
As your cinnamon basil grows, it may require some care. Fertilizing each year with organic matter can boost its health and productivity. Prune the plant once a year, and consider pruning the bloom stems to encourage bushier growth.
When your plant has reached a height of at least 8 inches, you can begin to harvest its leaves. You will want to harvest the top leaves first, as this encourages the plant to continue growing and producing more leaves.
To harvest your cinnamon basil, simply pinch or cut off the stems right above a pair of leaves. This will allow the plant to regrow and produce more leaves throughout the season.
For a continuous supply of fresh cinnamon basil, aim to harvest your plant every two to four weeks.
Remember to never remove more than one-third of the plant at a time, as this can stress the plant and hinder its growth.
>> Related article: How to Harvest Basil (without damaging the plant)
Storing cinnamon basil
To get the most out of your harvested cinnamon basil, proper storage is key. Here are some tips:
- For short-term storage, lightly rinse freshly picked leaves and gently pat dry. Keep leaves whole or loosely chopped. Place in a jar of water like cut flowers and refrigerate for 5-7 days, changing the water daily.
- For longer storage, carefully wash and dry leaves completely. Lay flat in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to freezer bags. Frozen leaves will keep for up to 6 months.
- Drying is another preservation method. Harvest stems along with leaves and hang bundled upside down in a warm, dry place until crispy dry. Store dried leaves in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
- Infuse leaves into olive oil by packing leaves into bottles, pouring in oil to cover, and allowing to steep for 2-3 weeks. Strain and store flavored oil in the refrigerator.
>> Related article: How to Store Basil
Cinnamon basil is not just an earth-bound herb – it has a connection with outer space, too! Did you know that this unique basil was grown on the Space Shuttle Endeavour and even in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station?
You read that right! NASA conducted experiments to study the effects of microgravity on cinnamon basil, marking its special status in the world of herbs.