Preserving basil is an easy process that can be achieved in a number of ways; by drying, freezing, salting or in an oil base. Of course, nothing can really replace the fragrance, taste and colour of freshly picked basil but as basil grows only in the warm summer months, learning how to store it for later use can provide a very suitable alternative to fresh.
Basil is an annual herb grown primarily for culinary purposes and is used prominently in Italian and Asian cuisines which have a wide variety of basil recipes. With a checkered past, it has been both revered and reviled throughout history; it was considered l’herbe royale of kings in ancient Greece, regarded as holy by the Hindus of India and to the Romans basil was a symbol of love. Several of the orthodox churches of Eastern Europe use basil to prepare holy water while in parts of Africa, basil was thought to protect against scorpions. Contrarily, the English botanist Culpeper thought that basil would attract and even breed scorpions in the brain! During the late 1600’s in Salem, MA, a kitchen garden with pots of basil was enough to cast suspicion that a witch was at hand.
All types of basil grow well in full sun and are very easy started from seed — a single package of basil seed will provide you with several pots throughout the summer to use fresh and to store for winter use. Basil is also readily available from nurseries as seedlings. If you plan on using lots of basil, it can planted out in the garden, preferably beside a pathway where brushing against it will release its lovely aroma, and plan to have a few pots by the kitchen for easy access while cooking.
Start to grow basil indoors in March or April by sowing seed in 4″ pots (as per package instructions), water with a spray mist and cover with a plate of glass or place the pot with a support such as a chopstick, in a large plastic bag and seal with a twist tie around the top of the chopstick. Place in a sunny window until the seed germinates — after sprouting, allow the new plants 4 – 6 weeks growth before hardening off for planting outdoors. Once established, be diligent in pinching out the tops to encourage new growth and bushier plants. By planting a few pots every couple of weeks, you’ll have a continuous supply of basil to use fresh and for preserving until frosty weather sets in.
Regardless of the method you choose for preserving basil, for optimum flavor pick an entire stem of basil just before the flowers bloom — wash and gently pat dry or give the sprigs a whirl in a salad spinner. Freezing basil is the best way to preserve its flavour; it will darken in colour but the flavor will be retained. To freeze basil, lay the sprigs out on a cookie sheet, freeze, then store in zip lock bags, removing excess air as you seal the bag. You can also freeze basil in ice cube trays; mince the basil as you would for cooking, put a tablespoon or so in the cube pocket and cover with water. Freeze and store in zip lock bags — this is a good method for basil recipes such as sauces and soups as the water will evaporate in cooking. Another method of freezing basil is to put the sprigs in a food processor and add enough olive oil to make a coarse paste; pack the paste into a layer about 1/2″ thick in a zip lock bag and freeze. Break or cut off a piece of the slab as needed. This is a good method for basil recipes such as pesto and pasta sauces.
Basil also dries well; however, dried basil will soon lose its flavor so plan on using your dried basil within a few months. To dry basil, wash and dry whole sprigs as above and hang, upside down, in a brown paper bag — allow to dry in a warm, dry location. You can also dry basil by spreading the leaves in a single layer on a screen or drying rack; a large bamboo steamer tray works well for drying small amounts. Salting basil is another alternative for storing; this is an old fashioned method but very simple. Alternating layers of basil and sea salt or kosher salt are stacked in a stoneware crock, with the salt barely covering the basil leaves and the top and bottom layers of salt being slightly thicker — cover the crock or jar and store. As a bonus, the salt will take on the flavor of the basil which can then be used for cooking pasta, sauces, vinaigrette etc.
There’s no need to wait until the end of the growing season to harvest basil for preserving; pinch out the tops and pick larger sprigs as they grow. As you harvest basil leaves and stems every few days to use fresh or for storing, you’ll be forcing the plant to start new growth and will have a stronger, bushier and healthier plant as a result. If you allow basil to set seed after flowering, the stem that has flowered will become woody; but the rest of the plant will remain tender and tasty for continued use.
Experiment a little and try a few different methods of preserving basil to find out which works best for your needs; on a cold winters’ day, you’ll be happy to have some basil on hand to warm up with in the kitchen!
Lorna Kring is an avid lifelong gardener with a passion for creating custom, personalized gardenscapes with a distinctive affection for landscaping with herbs.