Harvesting and Storing Basil

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Photo courtesy of poeticallychallanged at flickr.com.

It’s best to harvest your basil before it flowers as it tends to have a better flavor then. While you can harvest basil from the side stems of the plant, harvesting the leaves from the top will encourage a bushier, fuller plant.

According to some experts, including Howard Garrett, basil is best harvested late in the day when sugars have built up causing flavors to be more intense. Additionally, basil harvested at the end of the day will have a longer shelf life.

If your basil crop is larger than an Italian restaurant can use in an entire season, or if a freeze is headed your way, there are a few ways you can savor your basil later:

Freeze the leaves – Blanche basil leaves and quickly place them in an air-tight plastic bag in the freezer. The downside to this storage method is that the basil tends to turn a dark color, making it unsightly. Unless your dinner guests have a palette for blackened basil goop, it’s best to use this method for recipes that call for basil to be well-blended into cooked foods. That way your guests can enjoy the taste of your basil without being subjected to its less-than-attractive appearance.

Salt the leaves – Using sea or kosher salt, pack alternate layers of salt and basil leaves in a container (glass or plastic). Take care to fully cover basil layers with salt and make sure there are not too many overlapping leaves of basil. If the basil leaf layers are too thick, you may just be growing a very large container of mold spores. Place a layer of salt on the top, seal and place in the freezer. The contents should last for several months. Reuse the salt in other cooking projects or to make a new batch of preserved basil leaves. This method is believed to be the best for keeping the original basil leaf intact.

Grind and freeze – Puree basil leaves in a food processor, mixed with a small amount of water, pour into ice cube trays and freeze. This method allows you to use your basil in small increments.

“Preserve” in oil – This really should not be used as a long-term preservation method, unless you have a natural immunity to botulism poisoning! (Even if you do, your dinner guests probably won’t!) Use this oil quickly (within two weeks) and keep it in the fridge!

Preserve in vinegar – Basil vinegar is a better, and definitely safer, preservation method than basil oil. To use this method, chop basil, place inside a glass jar, pour warm vinegar into the jar and cap with a corrosion- and acid-proof lid. Store it in a cabinet or refrigerator for a while and shake (not stir) regularly to develop flavor. Do not use second-rate white vinegar on good, fresh basil. That’s just wrong!

In case you didn’t know, do not eat any of these if mold is present or if they have a rancid smell.