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Harvesting and Preserving Basil

Basil is one of the best loved and most commonly cultivated herbs of summer. She lends sweet, spicy aroma and flavor to marinades, vinegars, herbal butters, teas, cocktails and even ice cream. And when a sun-kissed tomato meets up with a few sprigs of fresh basil – magic! But there’s more than one way to harvest basil and a myriad of ways to preserve it.

No Pruning, No Gain

Basil, like most herbs, loves the sun. Without regular pruning, however, the herb can get lanky and end up looking more like barren trees and bushy plants. Whether you start from seed or purchase nursery plants, the time to start pinching new growth is when the seedling reaches about six inches in height. The correct way to do this is to pinch off the top set of leaves with your thumb and forefinger, just above the internode below. This joint-like section of the main stem is where new growth appears, so pinching back above will encourage the plant to produce more branches with leaves below, making the plant fuller. Similarly, pinch off the fuzzy tips that would otherwise morph into purple flower stalks. Pretty as the flowers are, they take energy to produce that could be reserved for growing new leaves. The flowers are, however, very tasty additions to teas and herbal vinegars!

More, Please

Increase your basil yield by staggering plantings. That way, the seedlings you plant in June or early July will be ready to harvest in August. Meanwhile, you’ll still be collecting leaves from the basil you planted in May or early June.

more harvesting tips …

  • Harvest basil as needed, but not more than once every 2 or 3 weeks to allow time for the plant to recover. Also, never take more than one-third of the plant.

  • For best flavor, harvest basil in the morning after the dew has dried and before the day heats up. This is when the volatile oil concentration in the leaves is at its peak.

  • Basil is an annual, so harvest the entire plant at the end of the season. This means well before the first fall frost is expected for your area because basil will not survive the event.

Preserving Basil

To dry basil the old-fashioned way, bundle a few long sprigs together and tie off at the top with twine. Hang upside down in a cool, dry place free of drafts and direct sunlight. Note, though, that basil turns dark brown or black if exposed to sunlight as it dries. To prevent this, secure small paper bags around the drying bundles. The bags will also be helpful in capturing the herb as you crumble the dried leaves with your fingers.

Alternately, you can dry basil leaves in a food dehydrator if you have one. The house will smell heavenly!

Note: Although you can use the oven to dry herbs on a very low temperature (like 180’ F), I don’t recommend using the microwave as some writers suggest. As with honey, I feel that the microwaves might degrade the beneficial plant compounds.

Fresh basil can also be frozen, if blanched first in boiling hot water for two or three seconds. That’s all the time that’s needed – your goal is to wilt, not cook the herb. Immediately place blanched stems into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Pat dry thoroughly, then pack the leaves flat into freezer bags. It’s a good idea to label the bags before slipping them into the deep freeze, especially if you’re freezing other leafy herbs as well.

more using and preserving tips …

  • Drizzle chopped fresh basil leaves with a small amount of olive oil, then pack into ice cube trays and freeze. Pop one or two out when needed for cooking.

  • Make pesto. What you don’t eat within a few days can be frozen.

  • Use fresh basil to make culinary vinegars or flavored butters, alone or in combination with other herbs.

Updated 7/1/19

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