Basil is a favorite culinary herb in many kitchens, so learning how to harvest the summer’s bounty to enjoy all year is an important skill for the home chef.
This article shares the best ways to harvest fresh basil leaves to keep your plants healthy and growing strong. Then we’ll also share our favorite ways to store basil from a few days to a full year.
Harvesting Fresh Basil – The More You Pick, The Stronger It Grows
Your basil will actually produce more and better-tasting leaves if you harvest it regularly. This is good news since it gives us plenty of opportunities to harvest basil for our recipes.
Pinching the tips back regularly will prevent flowering as well as keeping your plants compact and bushy. Once the plants flower, the leaf flavor starts to decline, and the leaves grow less vigorously.
When my young single-stemmed plants begin to grow tall—having four to eight pairs of leaves–I pinch off the top 1 or 2 pairs of leaves so that the plant will start to branch out and become a bush.
Once the plant begins to grow on several stems, I continue to pinch off the tips of 1-2 leaf pairs each. This keeps the plant growing bushy. If the basil bush is becoming overcrowded, and I want to open up some space, I may also cut some of the longer full stems.
Always pinch right above a pair of leaves to avoid leaving a dead stub of the stem. Whenever you see flower buds forming, pinch them off.
For best results, harvest basil in the morning before the sun is hot.
Preserving Basil: How Long Does It Last?
Fresh basil will keep in the refrigerator for three to five days in an airtight bag. You can also store basil for about a week in a container with an inch of water in the bottom and a plastic bag or piece of plastic wrap loosely covering the open top. For longer-term storage, you’ll want to freeze or dry your basil or make it into pesto.
Whichever storage method you choose, start with only the best quality leaves; discard those that are discolored, withered, or chewed by insects. Wash leaves and spin or pat them dry before drying or freezing them. Though if you are freezing them in water, you can omit the drying step.
Freezing Basil For Long Lasting Flavor
How Long Does Frozen Basil Keep?
Freezing basil is likely the best way to preserve its flavor. There is some disagreement about how long frozen basil will keep. According to the experts, here are the most popular ways to freeze basil and the estimated storage time.
Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver says that blanching and freezing basil, or freezing it ground up in butter or oil, is the preferred storage method and that frozen basil will keep for six months.
Up to A Year
The Colorado State Extension recommends freezing herbs (including basil) raw, either dry or in ice cube trays of water, and says they will keep for a year.
Best Within 3 Months
According to Ohio State, frozen herbs retain more nutrients than dried ones. But that while they may safe to eat after a year or longer, their quality will be best within the first 3-6 months.
4 Ways to Freeze Basil
1. Freezing Pesto
My family preserves our basil in the form of frozen pesto. To make a basic pesto, add garlic, nuts, olive oil, and lemon juice in a food processor and blend them all together.
Once the pesto is ready, drop lumps of the resulting mixture onto a wax-paper-covered cookie sheet, then place it in the freezer. Once the lumps are frozen, they go into a freezer bag. (We don’t put cheese in until we’ve thawed the pesto and are ready to use it).
The Kansas State Extension says that frozen pesto will keep for six months. However, I’ve found that pesto holds its flavor well for at least a year, and I’ve suffered no ill effects from eating it at that stage. For more about making and freezing pesto, see our article on cooking with basil, which will have a fuller discussion of pesto.
2. Freeze Basil Leaves in Wax Paper
To keep the best color and flavor, you can pre-blanching your basil before freezing.
- First, blanch the basil stems by dipping them into boiling water for a few seconds and removing them when their color brightens.
- Then cool the basil under running water or let it air-cool.
- Finally, remove the stems
- Lay the leaves out on a single layer on wax paper
- Roll the wax paper and basil, keeping a layer of paper between each layer of leaves, and pack in freezer bags or freezer wrap.
3. Freeze Basil In Ice Cube Trays
- Press about one tablespoon of washed and chopped basil leaves into each section of the tray.
- Half-fill the trays with water and let freeze overnight.
- Top off with water and freeze again. Then store in freezer bags.
4. Freeze Basil In Oil
Penn State suggests freezing basil in oil for better color and flavor.
- Mix 2 cups of chopped herbs with 1/3-1/2 cup of oil.
- Mix them in a blender until smooth if you wish. Canola oil has a neutral flavor that won’t inhibit the flavor of the basil. Many people find that the flavor of olive oil goes well with basil.
- Freeze your oil/herb mix in ice cube trays or small jelly jars.
When using ice cube trays, pop the cubes out once they’re frozen and put them into a freezer bag. They’ll keep longer and also so their flavor won’t seep into everything else in the freezer.
Additional Tips for Storing Basil
- Don’t store herb-infused oils out at room temperature, and don’t keep them for more than four days in the refrigerator to avoid dangerous bacterial growth.
- Do not thaw frozen basil before adding it into sauces or other cooked products.
- And remember that it will be limp after freezing and thawing, so it won’t make an attractive garnish.
4 Ways Of Drying Basil
While freezing basil is often the recommended method for preserving basil, dried basil is sometimes more practical. Before drying, rinse basil thoroughly and then pat or spin it to remove excess water. Then separate individual leaves and spread them out to dry.
Once you’ve prepared your basil leaves for drying, you may choose one of the following methods.
1. Forced-air dehydrator
- Place leaves on individual drying sheets.
- Set the temperature at 95-110 F. The more humid the surrounding air is, the higher the temperature should be; some sources recommend temperatures as high as 125 F in humid areas.
- Drying should take 1-4 hours. Check regularly.
2. Microwave Oven
Small amounts of basil can be dried in a microwave oven. Since microwaves vary widely, it’s best to follow the specific instructions that come with your microwave.
3. Oven Drying
Some sources suggest drying basil in an oven under the pilot light or oven light (not at higher heat); others say that any form of oven drying is not recommended.
To dry basil leaves in this way,
- Spread paper towels out on baking sheets.
- Place the basil leaves out on these towels so that they do not touch each other. You may add up to four more layers of towels and leaves.
- Let dry overnight.
4. Air Drying
Air drying may also work where the air is neither dusty nor humid. Bundle whole stems, hang them in a clean, dry airy place out of direct sunlight, and check them regularly.
Using Dried Basil in Recipes
Dried basil leaves should be brittle and crumbly. Since dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh herbs, the usual rule of thumb is to substitute one teaspoon of dried herbs for one tablespoon of fresh herbs in recipes.
This recommendation may not apply to basil if it loses pungency in storage. You may want to make some taste tests and draw your own conclusions.
Dried basil needs to be added to liquid and cooked for a while to bring out its flavor. Add it into sauces for at least half an hour of cooking if you can, or add it to the oil in which other parts of the dish are prepared.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I accidentally let my basil start flowering?
Don’t panic. Pinch the stems off well below the flowers and wait for new growth.
Can I harvest too aggressively and hurt my plant?
Yes. Always leave plenty of healthy leaves so the plant can grow back.
Why pinch off tips? Why not pick leaves from the bottom?
The tips have the best texture and flavor. Also, every time you harvest, you are shaping your plant. Taking off lower leaves and leaving tips will encourage your plants to grow long, floppy, and leggy. Besides, flower buds tend to form at the tips, and you don’t want to let your basil go to flower.
If you harvest your basil plants attentively, you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of aromatic goodness while also improving your plants for the rest of the season.
Like most things, basil is best fresh, but there are many ways of preserving it for winter. Opinions may vary about the best way to preserve basil’s fresh color and rich pungency and how long it remains good in storage. You may want to try several methods and decide which pleases you best.