You are not alone, many people confuse basil and oregano. They look pretty similar. However, their taste is quite different, and also, if you take care, you can also notice differences in their appearance. If you want to know in what they differ (taste? use in the kitchen) here you will find what you need.
Hence, what are the differences between basil and oregano? Basil and oregano both belong to the mint family. However, they differ in the following:
- Appearance: leaves and flower present different color and shape
- Growing conditions: oregano needs less water
- Life span: oregano lasts longer
- Taste: stronger for oregano
- Culinary purposes: different recipes although replaceable
Both herbs are commonly used in the kitchen, especially if you are attempting a South European dish (someone mentioned Italy?). However, there are notable differences that make one better than the other on many occasions. Let’s understand first how you can spot the difference first and then, when (and when not), you should use them.
You might wonder: if basil and oregano belong to the same family, should not be the same? Well, the mint family contains 6000 species of plant, as discussed in this university investigation (including also trees!). Think about basil and the classic mint. Are they the same? Not, of course. The same applies to oregano and basil. Let’s dive into the differences starting on how they look like.
Oregano leaves are ovular with a pointy end. They grow to up to 2 inches (5.1 cm) long. The most common oregano variety (called origanum Vulgare) has leaves with tiny “hair” on their border. The plant as a whole grows up to 24 inches (around 60 cm) tall, source. Its stem is also hairy.
Basil (the most common Genovese variety) has oval leaves that grow up to around 4 inches (10 cm) as detailed in Planting Village. Hence, when fully grown basil leaves are larger than oregano ones. Moreover, basil leaves bend quite a bit, while oregano ones are flatter. The basil stem does not present any hair.
Basil flowers are tiny, white with very small petals in a tubular arrangement. They grow a few for every spot in the basil.
Oregano flowers can be either pink or light purple. They grow on top of a leafless stem (not like in basil). Oregano flowers grow in a bunch, creating like a cupola shaped of tiny flowers differently from the single basil ones.
The basil family is pretty large with some variants that present pretty fascinating features. So far I indeed talked only of the common basil variety. That one that you find into the supermarket (called the Genovese type). However, with other basil varieties, the differences with oregano get more evident with oregano.
Some basil types like dark opal, for instance, have purple leaves. Hence, in this case, the color is the first and most evident difference from oregano. If I refer to the small-leaved basil (such as lemon basil, dwarf basil, or bush basil), the height is the main distinctive difference. Indeed, such basil varieties are around half of the height of oregano when fully grown (top height of 12 inches, 30.48 cm).
On the opposite, the large basil varieties, like the large-leaved basil can grow up to 3 feet (91.4 cm), almost double than oregano.
2. Growing Conditions
According to the Western Institute for Food Safety & Security (WIFSS), basil is a water sensitive plant. It thrives in moist soil (differently from rosemary, for instance). This means that it needs regular watering to avoid stress. The WIFSS also states that basil grows best in well-drained but moist soil. The Advances in Environmental Biology also notes that basil is sensitive to fertilizers in high concentrations.
Kansas State University suggests that, when you’re growing oregano, well-drained soil is the best choice. However, oregano, different from basil, doesn’t need to stay as moist. Oregano definitely needs to be watered less than basil. Over-watering oregano will stunt plant growth and survival.
3. How Long Do They Last?
Here is the key fact
Everything correlated with the lifespan of an herb (any plant) is correlated to which type they belong to. Are they perennial or annual? Perennial plants last longer than two years (some of them even 30 years, here an example) while annual plants complete their life cycle in a single growing season.
Basil includes a massive number of species. The majority are perennial. However, the most common Genovese basil (the pesto-king that you find in any supermarket) is an annual herb. This means that they tend to bloom in the spring and summer and die off in winter after flowering and going to seed. Here 21 tricks to make massive basil indoor.
Oregano, differently from basil, is a perennial with a way longer lifespan of easily 4- years as discussed here or here. If you’re growing your oregano indoors, you can easily control its growth if necessary (just have a look at how to create an indoor garden from some inspiration).
Be careful now!
I have grown both herbs indoor (UK, minimum winter temperature indoor of around 41F, 5C). Both of them were suffering, and basil died quickly due to such low temperature (and the lack of sun did not help). Indeed, both herbs required a warm environment to stay alive. I would suggest an indoor temperature always above 50F, 10C. Ideally, a greenhouse can be a good option. I built it one for 30 dollars lights included.
Here the catch: basil and oregano have quite a different taste, and normally avoid to swap them.
Basil has a sweet smell and a strong taste. While it’s, overall, described to have a peppery taste, the taste can vary depending on the type of basil you’re eating. For instance, lemon basil has a citrusy taste, and Holy Basil is slightly spicy with sweet undertones.
Oregano is a very aromatic herb that isn’t as sweet as basil. Instead, it has a slightly bitter taste and a pungent flavor. It’s also noted to have an earthy or musty taste with minty tones. When eating in large quantities, it can give you an acidic feeling in your mouth.
5. Oregano and Basil: Three Tasty Recipes
You might be wondering: does the taste allow us to use them at the same time? From my experience as Italian, there are not many plates in which they can be used at the same time due to their slightly contrasting flavor. However, I found a few of them delicious and relatively easy to do.
One way to use the two herbs together is to make basil and oregano pasta. This is quite simple, healthy, and full of flavor dish that I often prepare at home. I did not found any good video except the one below (it is from an Italian channel). You can use the English subtitles (really worth it)
Pesto with Basil and Oregano
Alternatively, you can create something like basil and oregano pesto, which you can add to a variety of dishes. A summer herb pesto brings out the power of these two herbs as the main focus. This is different from the regular pesto, but still quite interesting and rich of intense flavor.
Basil and Oregano Baked Salmon
Another of my favorite plates using basil and oregano is the garlic baked salmon. What you have to do is to create a rich coating of oil, lemon, garlic, salt, pepper with the addition of dried basil and oregano. This sauce will be applied on top of the salmon that will then be baked inside an oven foil. The flavor of the oregano and garlic will slowly be released, so to be trapped by the foil, and penetrate the salmon.
What are the best recipes for basil?
Well, the sky’s the limit, to be honest. From the well-known BCC, you can find 600+ recipes, including basil. This is only a small fraction of the one available. However, I will give you my three best picks:
- Pesto: This is a true classic. The quality of the basil here is key. That’s why growing your own fresh basil can make a massive difference in the final result
- Thai chicken: this is something that I tried recently. This is a very delicious dish. HEre the video from where I took the recipe
- Spaghetti basil: I love this recipe for its simplicity. Here again, differently from the abundant Thai chicken, the presence of few ingredients makes the quality of them important. Here a great video from the entertaining Gennaro
What are the best recipes for oregano?
Oregano as well is a massive staple herb in our cuisine although slightly less used than basil. Nevertheless, you will not run out of ideas with the 200+ recipes ideas you can find. Here my best 3 picks (again, I am Italian, so I might be a bit biased):
- Meatballs: I am a fan of them. In this recipe, you might go for the dry version of oregano. A good video explaining how to do them below
- Pizzaiola steak: this a classic I grew up with on my island. The key to this plate is to prepare a tasty tomato sauce where the meat will be left slowly to cook. This is to leave the sauce flavor to penetrate the meat. Of course, oregano here is a staple.
- Stuffed bell pepper: again, a classic of Italian cuisine. Essentially these are bell pepper stuffed with minced beef flavored with oregano, garlic and if desired, some nuts. A typical winter meal rich in flavor, sometimes used as a unique plate to serve with some crispy bread on the side
When should you add fresh oregano or basil in your recipe?
Fresh basil and oregano are quite similar in this aspect. They should both added close to the very end of every recipe where heating is involved. The dish should be warm but not scorching hot otherwise, your herb will burn.
You will understand when your herb is overheated as it gets black, dry, and crispy, losing all its flavor. This is often a problem when doing a pizza for the first time. In this case, basil should never go inside the oven but placed on a warm (but not straight from the oven) pizza, here for more info.
Oregano and Basil Can Be Companion?
Do you have one large pot and are thinking of using for both your oregano and basil plant? Do not do it!
Here is the thing: basil and oregano are not meant to grow in the same pot due to different water needs.
Basil needs regular watering with consistently moist soil, while oregano can struggle when it’s watered too much. A basic principle when deciding when growing two plants together, it’s important to ensure that their growing conditions are compatible and oregano and basil are not.
If you grow multiple herbs in your pot, there are other herbs you can grow with your oregano and basil.
Oregano grows well with sage, thyme, rosemary, lavender, and marjoram.
Basil pairs well with parsley.
Can You Replace Basil With Oregano In Recipes?
The good news is yes, you can!
You can substitute oregano and basil for one another in most recipes, including pizzas and pasta. However, you need to be aware of the different flavor profiles of the two herbs.
Basil, by nature, is a mild herb, while oregano is known to be a more pungent flavor profile with a more powerful profile. Thyme is also a recommended substitute for both of these herbs.
Here is the catch: because of their taste intensity, chefs recommend adapting the amount of each herb in the recipe you are preparing.
When you substitute oregano for basil, you’ll want to use less oregano than you would basil. This also means that recipes calling for oregano might need a higher volume of basil if you’re using it as a substitution.
Dried Basil Vs Dried Oregano
Fresh herbs are, by far, my favorite. From the plant straight to your plate. However, for many of you, if you produce lots of basil (21 for massive basil indoor), you might want to store it, so it does not get wasted as your herb requires constant pruning to grow at its best.
Here is a guide on how you can store your basil. The same applies to oregano. Basil is made mostly of water. A dried herb, whatever it is, generally has a stronger flavor for the same quantity. In other words, a 10g of dry basil adds way more flavor than 10g of dried basil.
For basil, use only half of the amount of dry basil as you would fresh. In case it does not look fresh enough, you can still add more. However, once it is there, it cannot be removed, so better to be cautious at first.
For oregano, it is recommended a 3 to 1 ratio of fresh herbs to dry herbs, as detailed here.
Now you know that basil and oregano, due to their different water requirements are not best friends.
However, do you know that basil has more than 5 plants with which it can grows in harmony and actually helping each other?
Have a look at the article below to check what are the best (and worst), basil companion
Is oregano a superfood? Oregano is classified as the top herbs regarding its antioxidant content, the highest among all herbs. Moreover, it is a good supply of vitamins like A, C and Calcium.
Can you eat fresh basil leaves? If the leaves and the plant do not present any sign of distress, it is safe to eat the leaves. Their taste is at its highest when eaten raw straight after picked.