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I've heard numerous times (especially in connection with Italian dishes) that you shouldn't cut basil with a knife, but rather tear it with your hands. I've heard two different reasons for this:

  1. the steel knife oxidizes the basil causing the edges to turn black (which is visually unappealing);

  2. the tearing bruises the basil and releases more oil from the leaf than simply cutting it would.

But, I'm skeptical of (1) and don't particularly care about the color issue anyway (I consider this a negligible issue; additionally, you could use a plastic knife if the steel knife is really the cause of the supposed oxidation). Also, with (2) you could simply bruise the leaves before cutting and still save time especially if you need to cut/tear a lot of basil.

Examples of the claim:

So, are there any non-negligible reasons to tear basil instead of cutting it (or vice versa)?

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    I've heard the same in relation to lettuce; in that case the concern was the browning of the cut edges. I've always assumed that modern knives are OK because they are made of stainless steel instead of the old carbon-steel. In the case of basil, I have also heard that tearing releases more flavour. Unfortunately I have no evidence for either. – hdhondt Sep 5 '13 at 0:52
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    My training when I worked as a line cook, as well as personal experience, suggest that tearing causes iceberg lettuce to brown more slowly than cutting with a knife. I would imagine the same to be true of basil, but much less noticeable (due to basil's naturally darker appearance). And there ARE plastic lettuce knives for this reason, although I have no experience with them. – Flimzy Sep 5 '13 at 6:44
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    I always though that the browning was due to cutting damaging the adjacent cells while tearing tended to separate the cells along their borders, resulting is less damaged cells meaning les browning. Now to find a study... =) – Jens Sep 5 '13 at 6:51
  • The accepted answer in the Seasoned Advice link indicates that there is no difference whatsoever; it's only the second, lower-ranked answer that indicates there might be discoloration. So at best that link both denies and makes claim (1) – Yamikuronue Sep 12 '13 at 20:30
  • It's lettuce, not basil, but there's a more thorough answer here: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/24227/… – Cascabel Sep 12 '13 at 21:15
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According to The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley, page 73

There is a local superstition that basil must never be cut with a blade but always torn with the fingers; this precaution ensures protection from snake bites. It is also far pleasanter and more aesthetic to tear the soft perfumed leaves.

  • How is this an answer? The cited source only repeats the claim (including a far more dubious version of it), and offers no supporting evidence of any kind. – Nate Eldredge Jan 19 '17 at 4:08
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    @Nate It does more than just repeat the claim; it adds protection from snake bites as a (superstitious) reason. – Jan Doggen Jan 19 '17 at 9:10

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