Optimising flavour in basil

Find out how to grow basil with a more intense flavour for the fresh cut and potted markets. 

How to grow flavoursome basil

It’s been shown that consumers prefer basil samples they describe as ‘intense’, so how do you ensure that the basil you grow has a rich flavour?

Here’s a summary of our top recommendations for optimising the flavour of your basil plants:

  • Maintain a consistent daytime temperature of about 25°C
  • Use UV-B lighting and glass filters
  • Choose the right basil varieties for your growing conditions and season
  • Keep crops well hydrated
  • Induce stress responses with sprays of salicylic acid, but don’t limit essential nutrients or water
  • Harvest crops when young
  • Maintain consistent temperatures of 1012°C throughout post-harvest storage
  • Use oxygen scavengers in storage and transit

Basil growing in the UK

Nearly all basil grown commercially in the UK is Ocimum basilicum. However, other species are used in international cuisine and grown in the UK for niche or worldwide markets.

Basil types are typically grouped by their flavour composition. The most significant is European or sweet basil, and other main classes include Reunion and African or holy basil.

The majority of the flavour compounds produced in basil occur naturally as UV protectants. These are released into the atmosphere in response to the Mediterranean climate, where it is traditionally grown. Light quality and availability are major limiting factors in developing flavour compounds in basil grown in the UK, but there are numerous steps you can take to ensure your basil plants enjoy optimal growing conditions.

Factors affecting the flavour of basil

Basil essential oil is made up of over 200 different volatile compounds, predominantly phenylpropanoids and monoterpenes. However, up to 85% of this oil is made up of just six main chemicals, and it’s these that primarily constitute the flavour in healthy plants.

The chemical make-up of basil differs with each variety, but oil quality is the main consideration regardless of the type of basil you grow. Volatile oil content affects the flavour, with low oil leaves appearing watery and insipid.

Making changes to the growing environment can have a major impact on the flavour of your basil, and the key is to strike the right balance between affecting flavour and yield. Exposing plants to UV-B light leads to a more intense flavou profile.

Variety

Different varieties of basil contain similar levels of essential oils, but the composition and flavour quality of these oils differ greatly. Choose your variety to suit your growing conditions and market. A high linalool/eugenol provile is typical of Europen type varieties and the preferred type for the UK market; however other types containing cinnamate or estragole as major constituents are considered for niche markets. 

Fertiliser

Under-fertilisation limits the plant’s ability to produce flavour compounds. Ensure your basil is sufficiently fertilised with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is most important, as this maximises photosynthetic potential and the content of essential oil.

Biostimulants

Research applications using treatments such as salicylic acid, jasmonic acid and other growth regulators have been shown to improve basil’s essential oil content and quality. Different varieties respond differently, but it’s worth noting that these treatments may affect other important factors, such as physiology and yield.

Irrigation

Basil needs to be adequately watered to maximise yields. However, you may be able to improve its flavour with mild water stress, which induces an increased concentration of essential oil but this could result in yield losses. 

Light quality

Basil prefers direct sun. You can alter the duration, intensity and quality of light your basil receives,to change and improve its flavour, by causing more UV protectants to be produced. Glass cuts out considerable levels of UV-B, so glasshouse production can result in a poorer flavour. If possible, alter the available light using supplementary UV-B, red-blue LED lighting or coloured reflective mulch. Diffuse glass will allow in more UV-B light, giving a more intense flavour. Avoid shade conditions, which can lead to stem elongation.

Day length

You will need to strike a balance between short day conditions, which improve flavour, and long days, which increase yield. Time of harvest is also important in maintaining flavour, with crop grown early or late in the season being less favourable. 

Temperature

Maintaining consistently high daytime temperatures encourages basil to produce flavour compounds. In some cases growing your basil at 25°C results in more oil content than growing it at 15°C. The final two weeks of production are most critical for ensuring sufficiently high temperatures. 

Leaf size and age

Harvest your basil as young as is viable, as this improves flavour. Plants less than 12 cm in height are preferable for high-quality pesto products, while older plants close to flowering are ideal for oil production because there is a greater content of oil (though the quality is lower).

Post-harvest

Harvest when conditions are cool and keep cut basil at a consistent 1012°C. Minimise heat shock post-harvest, and handle with care throughout the supply chain to minimise degradation. Lower temperatures can cause discoloration, while higher temperatures promote respiration and the development of off-flavours.

Useful links

For further detail, read the full factsheet: optimising flavour in basil Read the full technical review on optimising flavour in herbs

Read about optimising flavour in other herbs

Optimising flavour in chives Optimising flavour in coriander Optimising flavour in mint Optimising flavour in rosemary Optimising flavour in parsley
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