Dear Practical Kitchen,
I've noticed you're making a lot of pizzas lately, so I'm hoping you can settle a debate for me: When should you put fresh basil on a pizza? Before or after it goes in the oven?
Fresh basil should go on pizza after it's baked, not before. Dried basil can go on before and/or after baking. What an easy question to answer!
Of course, if you do put fresh basil on your pizza before it goes in the oven it's not the end of the world — at the end of the day, pizza is still pizza. And pizza is delicious.
But basil is a delicate herb that bruises easily and oxidizes when cut and exposed to air. When the leaves bruise or oxidize, they turn black and and shrivel up. They don't look very appetizing.
Compare the two pizzas below to see what whole basil looks like when put on the pizza before baking (left) versus after the pizza is baked (right).
Notice how the basil leaves on the right, which went down after the pizza had finished baking, are brighter in color? They don't just look better, they taste a lot fresher too.
The basil leaves on the left went on the pizza before it baked, and even though they were only in the oven for a few minutes (more on that in a minute) they just don't look or taste as great. They've darkened and wilted, they're a little crunchy but also a little soggy from the oil. And they've mostly disappeared into the cheese.
what happens to fresh basil in the oven
In a wood-fired pizza oven, pizzas bake at very high temperatures for a short period of time. I use a baking steel, which replicates that high-heat environment, to make my pizzas; they bake in about 4-5 minutes.
If you're cooking your pizza using a fast, high-heat method and add the basil before baking, the cook time is so fast that basil will darken, shrivel, crisp up but won't completely disappear into the pizza. It's not the most pleasant eating experience though; the leaves are prone to getting stuck in your teeth.
If you don't have a baking steel or pizza oven, you might be using a pizza recipe that cooks at a lower heat for 15 or even 20 minutes! That's a really long time for the delicate basil leaves to be exposed to air and the hot oil of the bubbling cheese.
They'll shrivel up and become dry or even slightly burned, while also being kind of soggy and limp, sticking in your teeth and sliding off the pizza when you bite in.
There are some people, and pizza traditions, that do put the basil down before baking the pizza. In this video about the best cheese for pizza, Adam Ragusea talks about a Neopolitan style pizza where the mozzarella is placed on top of the basil before baking to protect it from the high heat of the oven.
My opinion: Fresh basil is better on pizza after the oven
Waiting to put the basil on top of the pizza after the pizza has come out of the oven, on the other hand, keeps the basil fresh, the color bright, and prevents the leaves from getting too soggy and shriveled before you eat them.
I usually (try to) wait about 5-10 minutes before adding the fresh basil so that the hot oil from the cheese doesn't completely wilt it. It's hard to wait that long because, I don't know about you, but when I want pizza, I want pizza and I want it 5-10 minutes ago.
But if I had guests over and was serving up a pizza, you better believe I'd wait the extra few minutes to give them the freshest, most gorgeous basil-topped pizza of their lives.
Because basil wilts and oxidizes quickly once it's torn or cut, wait to slice or tear your basil until the last possible minute.
There's no need to have sliced or torn fresh basil sitting on your counter while the pizza is in the oven. Once the pizza comes out of the oven, that's when it's time to start tearing or slicing your basil.
One tip I've heard, though it's not my preference, is to put the fresh basil down under the cheese and other toppings if you want to put it down before baking. This, supposedly, prevents it from drying out. But it's just as easy to put the basil down while the pizza is hot out of the oven without risking it shriveling up or losing its fresh flavor.
But that's only if we're talking about whole fresh basil leaves.
My favorite way to put basil on a pizza is a thinly sliced chiffonade
Basil that has been "chiffonaded" has been thinly sliced into delicate ribbons. They're so small, and the cut sides are so quickly exposed to air that they'll oxidize and shrivel a bit whether you put them on the pizza before or after it goes in the oven.
I still prefer to put the ribbons of basil on the pizza post-oven just to give them every last chance to bring that bright, fresh basil flavor. Texturally, however, you won't notice that much of a difference.
The heat from the pizza will wilt the basil on contact, but at least the delicately sliced leaves won't dry out or burn in the oven.
The one noticeable difference between putting thinly sliced basil on the pizza before it goes into the oven vs after is that if you put it on before, it'll be swallowed up by the bubbling cheese.
So if you want a gorgeous cheese pizza with a beautiful garnish of thinly sliced basil over the top, you'll want to wait until the pizza comes out of the oven to slice and sprinkle it on.
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