Opal Basil and Lemon Sherbet Recipe


This post first appeared in October 2009, but I would like to remind you of this refreshing, fuschia tinted drink, which is perfect on these hot summer days. I have also been making it lately with Thai basil, which produces a lovely peach colored liquid.

Few things remind me more of summer than basil. Its interplay of bitter peppery notes and sweet licorice-anise is made vivid by the dark, tangy verdancy, a perfect counterpoint. In perfumery, it is a classical herbal note, used in both masculine and feminine fragrances for its cooling aromatic effect. Paired with citrus, it makes for a scintillating sensation. Thus, Hermes in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena relies on the green note of basil to wrap its grapefruit accords in fragrances like Hermessence Rose Ikebana and Eau de Pamplemousse Rose. In fact, the combination of basil and lemon is a perfect one to appropriate for gastronomical explorations, whether one wishes to compose a simple salsa or a fish marinade. Furthermore, I would like to suggest another idea–a chilled drink that traces its roots to the Middle Eastern sherbet tradition. It is an essence of summer in a glass.

Sherbet (from Arabic sharba, a drink, which also gave us a word syrup) is a cold, sweetened drink made with fruit, spices and flowers. Although in Western cooking basil tends to have savory connotations, it is remarkably versatile, given its unique spicy spectrum. Opal basil is a cultivar of the more commonly found sweet basil, and while it provides a gorgeous fuschia color to the drink, the flavor is similar, if a bit milder. You can also experiment with different basil varieties, such as lemon and Thai basil, which offer different profiles, the former being more floral and citrusy and the latter–heavier on spice and woods. The recipe below comes from my Baku, Azerbaijan based aunt, who was famous for her sherbets, from classical rose to white peach to saffron carrot. I am reluctant to give the quantities of sugar, because it depends on your sweetness preference. I tend to gravitate towards sherbet that is tart, with a subtle sweet accent, however a classical version is unapologetically sweet.

This simple recipe can be a starting point for experiments. When I cannot find opal basil, I use regular sweet basil in combination with raspberries (add them to boiling water along with basil,) which results in a truly special drink. Or else, replace basil with lemon thyme and combine it with blackberries. Or pair sour cherry with mint; strawberry with lemon verbena; peach with rose-scented geranium…

Opal Basil Sherbet

Serves 6

One bunch of basil
Juice of one lemon
6 cups of water
Sugar to taste

Bring water to boil and pour over basil. Initially, the liquid will take on an inky blue hue, but it will turn dark pink once you add acid. Let basil steep for about 15 minutes, then add lemon juice and a few pieces of yellow peel (avoiding the bitter white part.) Add sugar to taste and let the liquid cool completely. Strain and chill.


Photography © Bois de Jasmin.



  • Lavanya: Sounds delicious. WIll try this soon.
    Basil is so versatile. I’ve been using lemon basil in rasam and it gives it lovely undertones of lemon and ginger. October 5, 2009 at 3:04pm Reply

  • Lavanya: I’ve never come across opal basil before- will look for it. October 5, 2009 at 3:05pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Oooh, I love the chemistry trick embedded in this — inky blue to dark pink!

    Do you have any idea how these sherbets became perverted into the American sorbet-ish sherbert? It’s almost as though they are the frozen, granita-like version of these drinks, or would be, if they weren’t nasty, baby-aspirin flavored florescent colored gummy things found alongside jello-and-marshmallow salads… October 6, 2009 at 10:29am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Lavanya, basil has a very multifaceted profile, from citrusy to fruity, from clove to pepper. I always add a few leaves to various marinades and always to tomato dishes. I can just imagine the taste of rasam with some lemon basil…. October 6, 2009 at 10:37am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Oh, I wanted to take a picture before using opal basil in this sherbet, but the photo came out too blurry. Try googling it. I admit that opal basil is more of a farmer’s market/Russian store find for me. Usually, I have to resort to the combination of regular basil and raspberry to achieve the same dark pink color. October 6, 2009 at 10:39am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Megan, orange blossom water and rose water are among my favorites. I sometimes add some orange blossom water to mineral water for a simple, refreshing drink.
    Your class sounds like a lot of fun! October 6, 2009 at 10:40am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: A, yes, it is a neat transformation. Same principle as using a bit of acid in blueberry pie filling, which renders the color more intense, with a dark pink, rather than dark blue undertone (the purple color of both opal basil and blueberry comes from anthocyanins!)

    As for your other question, I am not sure. To be perfectly clear, sherbet comes directly from a Turkish word şerbet, which comes from Persian sharbat, which, in turn, comes from Arabic. Considering that the origins of fruit ices are widely debated, with some claiming them to be Roman inventions, others–Chinese, yet others–Arab, it is up for grabs. However, from a cold drink to a frozen drink, it is only a very short road to travel. 🙂

    I pretty much never buy sorbets, because I have an ice cream machine/ Sorbets are very easy to make: puree fresh or cooked fruit, add 40-50% sugar syrup to taste, flavorings, some alcohol to prevent them hardening into a rock and chill. With some nice crisp cookies, sablés or tuiles, it is a perfect summer dessert! October 6, 2009 at 10:53am Reply

  • Lavanya: I think there is a Russian store close by. I’ll check. I’ll also ask the person at the farmer’s market from whom I get my lemon basil and cinnamon basil. Thanks! and I agree with sweetlife- I love the bit about acid turing the blue, pink..:) October 6, 2009 at 12:47pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Lavanya, do let me know if you find it, but as I said above, other types of basils work just as well. Also, if you go to the Russian store, try to look for sour cherries (in their frozen section,) which make a wonderful lemonade with basil. October 8, 2009 at 8:32am Reply

  • Lavanya: I asked my ‘lemon basil farmer’ today and he said he’d bring in some opal basil next week..:) October 10, 2009 at 6:19pm Reply

  • Jenna: Sounds lovely! I might try it with Thai basil, because my local Asian stores carries it year round. August 11, 2010 at 1:57pm Reply

  • sweetlife: How funny, V, I just spent all last night experimenting with tea sorbets for a post on NST! I’m very glad to be reminded of this. August 11, 2010 at 11:10am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: I have been making lemon sorbets all summer long. Then I switched to chocolate. 🙂 August 11, 2010 at 2:27pm Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Jenna, Thai basil works really well. In fact, I find that it has a similar flavor profile to opal basil–anise-licorice with a mild hint of pepper. August 11, 2010 at 2:28pm Reply

  • kate: What a fascinating and unusual drink- I also love basil and invariably have some in to add to pasta dishes and tomato sauces but have never used it in this way ( although I often use the mint in my garden to make a refreshing infusion by just adding boiling water ). I have some of your lovely sherbet cooling down on the stove as I write- it is an exquisite colour and the gorgeous aroma of basil is enticing- ( I made it with normal sweet basil and raspberries_). I cannot wait to taste it when cooled! I must tell you that since I told you of my list of perfume loves a week or so ago I regretted forgetting to mention chanel 19 which I have been wearing very much of late- suited to the changeable weather we have been having here in northwest England- sometimes warm and summery then cool, and today- thunderstorms and rain. No 19 is always lovely and right for all moods and weathers.- I have a nice oldish bottle of EDP, – I think the new one is still good but weaker and slighly altered although I am not sure how- even the EDP-do you agree? Perhaps the extrait would be worth investing in… Kate August 12, 2010 at 3:24pm Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Kate, I hope that you like it! A slice of lemon before serving is also a nice touch (and it accents the citrusy facets of basil further.) If you ever have a surfeit of basil (or mint or another aromatic herb), you can make a thick syrup and it will keep for quite a while in the fridge. Then you dilute it with water and voila, an instant reminder of summer!

    I also find the new EDP weaker. But the same goes for the extrait. I have compared all of the bottles (even my oldest from 1980,) and the most recent ones are somehow not as tenacious. That being said, I love No19 in all of its forms, vintage and new. It is such a perfect fragrance, and I believe that Chanel is doing a great job retaining its character, despite all of the reformulations they have to do (due to IFRA, price and availability of raw materials, etc.) Of course, the extrait is by far the most luxurious version. It is heavier on orris, my favorite part of No 19. August 12, 2010 at 5:11pm Reply

  • kate: Yes it was gorgeous- and with a slice of lemon too! I will certainly try making the syrup, to dilute when needed later.

    I am interested in your comments on Chanel 19- slightly less tenacious is exactly what I meant but it is still very beautiful if a touch more delicate. I think it is the orris I love too …..

    Today I wore Un matin d’Orage,which I have really grown to love after reading your reviews-that and Songes last well on me and I adore them both…Thank you, happy weekend Kate August 13, 2010 at 4:49pm Reply

  • Black Opal: I didn’t know that Thai Basil could colour like this.
    Thanks so much for the tip, because red colouring can make kids go hypo!
    Black Opal August 28, 2010 at 12:24am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Black Opal, no, Thai basil would not give that intense color, no way. The basil I used for the drink in the photo is purple or opal basil. Thai basil, however, may be substituted, because the taste is similar. The color will be light peach. August 28, 2010 at 1:48pm Reply

  • Annia: Thank you for this lovely recipe. I’ve made sorbets from very fragrant violets and from lilacs. I freeze them in the freezer since I don’t have a machine and they do become very hard. What alcohol could I use to prevent this? Vodka? Annia September 7, 2010 at 4:17pm Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Annia, I would recommend stirring the ice crystals well a few times while your mixture freezes. Put it in a shallow dish and start giving it a stir after 1-2h and then every hour or so, till it looks like a mass of ice crystals. Then, it will not freeze into a rock. In a sense, you will have a granita. And you can definitely add some alcohol as well. Anything 40 proof should work (vodka, rum, cognac, etc.) September 7, 2010 at 4:22pm Reply

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