Best Ways to Store Basil

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The most beloved herb of summer, basil is the only culinary herb that smells as good as it tastes. For basil lovers, fresh is the only version that will do, because no preservation method adequately captures basil’s seductive flavor and aroma. Dried basil is usually a taste disaster, but several other methods give better results.

But before looking at ways to store basil, be sure to pinch plants often to delay flowering and induce branching. Basil plants that are pinched back weekly will produce longer and stronger than plants that are allowed to flower. Pinching basil is a joyous job because it smells so delicious, plus you get plenty of basil to use in cooking. But what if you have too much? At least twice a summer, I harvest and preserve great heaps of basil, using the following four methods.

  • Frozen pesto base is probably the best way to store basil for year round use. A food processor makes quick work of combining clean basil leaves with olive oil (allow one-fourth cup olive oil for 2 cups of loosely packed basil leaves) and a little salt. I freeze this mixture in ice cube trays or muffin tins, and transfer them to an airtight container after they have frozen hard. The puree can be thawed and remade into real pesto by adding garlic, parmesan cheese and nuts, or it can be taken in another direction and be used to flavor Thai dishes.

    Purple leaved basil Pesto not destined for the freezer should be promptly refrigerated and used within a few days, because the low pH of olive oil and basil provides a suitable environment for deadly botulism bacteria. The longer the pesto stays in your refrigerator, the greater the risk of botulism becomes. The old method of packing basil leaves in olive oil to preserve them is therefore a high risk endeavor.
  • Frozen ice cubes loaded with chopped basil are less messy than making frozen pesto, and they offer an easy way to store basil for several months. Simply chop leaves, stuff them into ice cube trays, cover with cold water, and freeze. The frozen basil bits will turn black as soon as they thaw, but they will still taste like basil.
  • Frozen basil cigars are one of my favorite ways to store basil with large leaves that can hold up to brief blanching. I dip branches of basil in boiling water for 10 seconds, and then pinch off the leaves and stack them about five deep. Then I roll up the blanched leaves like tight cigars, wrap the cigars in waxed paper, and then freeze them in airtight containers. When removed from the freezer and unwrapped, the cigars can be thinly sliced into ribbons that will make a ho-hum pizza truly unforgettable.
  • Preserving basil with sea salt
    Preserving basil with sea salt can help preserve it in the fridge for several weeks
  • Packing basil in sea salt can extend its storage life in the refrigerator by two to three weeks, so this method comes in handy if you have only a few plants. Cover the bottom of an airtight food storage container with sea salt, and alternate single layers of clean, dry basil with more sea salt. The leaves hold their color and flavor but don’t pick up the salt flavor. When you’ve used all the leaves, the salt can be dried and returned to the pantry.

What about dried basil? I’ve tried several methods, including hanging bunches of stems, drying basil leaves in my dehydrator, and even using a terra cotta flower press. No matter how quickly the basil dried, the leaves still came out tasting like tired spinach and ended up in the compost heap. Good thing I had some young new plants coming along in containers, because setting out more plants in midsummer is the best way to extend your basil season.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"Great article on preserving Basil! I'm going to post a reference to this on my garden blog!"
Toni on Saturday 26 June 2010
"Fantastic - I'm off to make freezer pesto!"
Lisa on Saturday 26 June 2010
"More of a question. Dill-- What is the best way to deal with dill{ no pun intended }? Should I cut off the starting to flower tops or let the go? Tom"
Tom Setz on Saturday 26 June 2010
"Dill blooms for a long time, so you can let the flowers go. The second "tier" of blossoms and thready leaves have more fragrance and flavor than the first anyway. Dried dill foliage typically lacks flavor (is that why they call it dill weed?), but the seeds will keep for years when gathered and dried. I use dill cut at all stages for creative pickling, from yellow flower clusters to newly mature seeds. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 26 June 2010
"I'm new to all this. Could you say more about "pinching back" basil? IS it like pinching tomatoes where you pinch off the starting branches in the crotch or is it more a harvesting back to some level (which is what it sounds like since you talk about having basil for cooking use). Anyway, please describe the process w/ appropriate newbie details. Thx much. Love the site and info. "
Bill Selig on Friday 2 July 2010
"Thanks so much about the information on leaving pesto in the refrigerator for to long. Never knew that. I will be sure to pass that info onto friends."
Ann on Saturday 3 July 2010
"On pinching...When you pinch of snip off the tip of a basil stem, you can take only the tuft of leaves at the end or a bit of stem. Removing that "terminal bud" makes the plant mobilize to grow more branches from latent buds farther down the stem. So, you can pinch away as long as you see the beginnings of those secondary stems, ready and waiting to grow. It's hard to overharvest basil! "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 3 July 2010
"For preserving for only a few days, I've had great luck simply treating like cut flowers, putting the stems in water, leaving "vase" on the kitchen counter - looks pretty and lasts!"
Barb Ramlow on Saturday 3 July 2010
"A friend of mine introduced me to drying basil in the microwave. Place the leaves flat on a paper towel and microwave on high for two minutes. The leaves are perfectly dry and retain their color. Have you ever used this method? Your thoughts on taste, etc.?"
Julie Griepentrog on Friday 16 July 2010
"Julie, if you try this yourself please let us know the results - sounds interesting..."
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 21 July 2010
"My flower press is a terra cotta affair that heats in the microwave (or sun), then absorbs moisture in pads of wool felt. Even with all this pampering, the dried basil lost its mojo. Sorry I can't be more encouraging..."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 21 July 2010
"I have just this minute tried drying basil leaves in the microwave. Perfect!!!Crisp and Colorful ! Thanks for the tip!"
Catherine on Thursday 9 September 2010
"Thanks for another useful another useful article. I will be making pesto this weekend! "
Claudia M on Thursday 18 August 2011
"Just tried the microwave method on cilantro leaves and it worked great too. Used it on basil and on mint before too. My microwave book recommends a paper napkin or towel under and on top of the herbs, then dry till the herbs can be crumbled about 1.5 - 2 minutes. I usually check after a minute for crumbliness and zap 15 seconds at a time till the herbs crumble. The microwave book also warns to keep an eye on the drying process as the herbs can catch fire towards the end. Good point as a summer intern at work walked off while drying some Forbes in a microwave. The next thing, we were all outside the building watching the firemen put out the fire in the lab."
MaD Whitham on Wednesday 18 July 2012
"Barbara, Can you can pesto?"
Claudia M on Wednesday 18 July 2012
"The salt and acid (vinegar or lemon juice) requirements for safe canning would ruin the flavor of the basil, processing time would turn it to mush, and canning in oil is never a good idea. So the answer is no, you must either freeze or dry excess basil."
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 19 July 2012
"Great idea about drying herbs in the microwave, but does anyone know how the flavor of basil is after dried this way? Is it tasteless? And how about the smell, is it still aromatic??? "
BJ on Sunday 27 January 2013
"Instead of making basil puree with olive oil and salt, I washed my sprigs of basil and then shake off the excess water and put them in a container in the freezer. The leaves of the basil sprigs turn dark coloured and brittle but they still taste the same to me. Can anyone comment on how this might differ from blending it with oil?"
Daniel Chang on Tuesday 10 September 2013
"As you prune basilica stems in the garden when fall comes, place them in water until you have a good amount of roots to replant in a pot indoors, and there you are : you have a new indoors plant for the winter ! As long as you keep the head in a sunny window and the foot of the pot in water you can keep the plant for a long time and use fresh leaves as you regularly prune the stems. Give regular plant nutrients every 6 weeks like you would any other green plant and it should grow fine. Good luck 1 it works for me and is worth trying !"
Christine Paradis on Saturday 30 August 2014
"How do I keep the herbs and use them to make my tea? "
sandra on Tuesday 7 July 2015
"I'm not quite sure I understand about the frozen pesto base. You say "Frozen pesto base is probably the best way to store basil". But yet it's dangerous because of botulism bacteria. So is the pesto BASE safe but not after you add the other ingredients that make it pesto?"
Stephanie on Monday 17 August 2015
"Stephanie, you can freeze pesto base safely, but refrigerated storage of any food product with oil in it should be a short-term proposition. Also, since writing this five years ago, I've started freezing pesto in a silicone muffin pan instead of using ice cube trays. One frozen pesto "puck" is the right amount for a pizza. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 17 August 2015

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