Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to Harvest, Dry, and Preserve Fresh Basil

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like to lately!  Two reasons: 1) it's SUMMER and we live on a LAKE! (no brainer), and 2) it's my busiest time of the year for face painting!

But, I thought I'd squeeze in a little sliver of time today to post about...BASIL!  I got a bunch of herbs for Mother's Day, and have been really enjoying growing them in large pots on our deck.  There's something just so wonderful about cooking a meal for your family in the summer, realizing some fresh herbs would be perfect, then stepping out on the deck in your bare feet and picking some right then and there.

Fresh herbs are expensive in the grocery store, but that doesn't mean you have to spend the money.  You can grow them year round in pots, indoors and out!  I haven't tried growing herbs indoors yet, but just might have to try it this winter.

So, I have a nice, full pot of basil, but it's growing like crazy and I am not cooking enough to use it all up.  If you have the same "problem," here are a few tips to harvest and preserve your basil.

Harvest your basil often to keep it growing.  You can simply pluck off the leaves individually as you use them, but there are a few ways to harvest and preserve larger quantities.

Harvest your basil in the morning...they say around 10 am-ish is best...after the morning dew but before the heat of the afternoon.  This is when the leaves' essential oils are at their strongest, and the leaves are the most flavorful.

Cut the stems just above the bottom one or two pairs of leaves.  This will encourage your plant to keep growing more basil for you to enjoy while you preserve what has grown!

Don't let the plant flower.  You won't get as much if it flowers, and flowering can also alter the taste of your basil.  If you see one starting to form, pinch that sucker off.  Here's a photo of a flower starting to form on one of my plants:
If you want to grow new basil from seed for the next season, you can leave the flowers grow to harvest the seeds at the end of your season.

Dunk the plants in some water to wash off any bugs, spider webs, or dirt that may be on them.  Usually there's at least a little dirt that jumps up there on those leaves when the rain falls or when you water your plants.

Shake off the excess water and lay them on a towel to dry off. 

From here you can decide how you'd like to save it:


Tie a few stems together at the base.  Be sure to tie them tightly because the plants will shrink as they dry. 

Hang them upside down somewhere in the house to dry, then store them in airtight containers or bags.  If you can't wait a week or two for them to air dry, you can use a dehydrator as well.  Many herb enthusiasts believe that they'll retain their flavor more if you air dry them versus a dehydrator or warm oven though.

Once they are dry, you can store the whole stem in a bag or container, or snap off each leaf and store them individually, or go as far as to crush the leaves up and store it in little pieces much like you get in the jars at the store.  However, storing them whole and breaking them up as you need them will help preserve the flavor and aroma.

Dried basil makes a wonderful gift, whether given in bunches or in a pretty jar with a decorative lid or label.

Here's a fun little trick I learned online to preserve your fresh basil.

After you've washed it, pick the leaves off and chop it up, just like you might if you were going to put it straight from the plant into your cooking.

Put it in a bowl and mix it up with some olive oil.  (You can also do this with just water instead of oil if you don't use the oil in your cooking)

Freeze little olive oil & basil "cubes" in an ice cube tray.

Once they are frozen you can pop them out and store them in an airtight container or ziploc bag in the freezer.

Just pull them out to toss in your cooking whenever you need it!

Other methods of freezing basil: 
- Just freeze the whole, fresh leaves!
- Make a paste: Puree the leaves with a little oil in your food processor, then freeze flat in a baggie.  Break off pieces of the frozen paste as needed.

Got any of your own tips and tricks for drying and storing fresh herbs?  Do tell!  I'm still a newbie myself and would love to learn more. :-)

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