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 flavour 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 flavour Thai dishes.
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 endeavour.
- 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 favourite 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.
- 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 colour and flavour but don’t pick up the salt flavour. 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 terracotta 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