Once a symbol of death and mourning in ancient Greece, a means of wedding engagement in Romania, a holistic remedy around the world, this spicy herb has earned its global reputation as king of the herb garden. And it’s delicious. Garnished atop pasta, the star ingredient in pesto, and a spicy treat for marinades, it would be an injustice not to enjoy its almighty flavors year-round.
And it’s simple to grow and preserve.
Basil requires little more than sunlight and drained soil, which, although easy to manage, can make it a victim to cold weather and frost. If your herb garden is subject to frigid temperatures: harvest, dry, and store basil now—to be enjoyed in your favorite marinades, sauces, and pestos throughout the winter.
As the plant produces flowers and seeds, it begins to lose its potent flavor, so it’s important to cut or pinch basil above the leaf during its seed production (look for newly budding flowers) when the leaves contain the most concentrated oils. As long as the temperatures are warm enough, keep the plant healthy by removing no more than a quarter of the plant at a time.
For air-dried basil, rinse the leaves and shake away extra moisture. Once dry, bundle the stems and tie into a bouquet. Place the basil bouquet into a paper bag with the stems facing the opening of the bag. Scrunch the mouth of the paper bag around the stems and tie closed. Hang the bag in a cool, dry area for 3 to 4 weeks, until the leaves are dry and crumbly.
For a quicker approach, there’s the option to oven-dry by simply placing the leaves on a baking sheet and “baking” for 3 to 4 hours in an 180 F oven, keeping the oven door slightly open. Alternatively, you can warm up the oven to a medium heat for 20 minutes. Then turn the oven off and insert the baking sheet(s) of leaves. The leaves will dry out as the oven cools down (with the oven door closed). Place the dried basil leaves (whole) in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place. Crumble or grind only before serving to retain flavor. If properly stored, dried leaves can last up to a year.
To preserve the freshest flavor, the National Garden Bureau recommends freezing the basil in water or olive oil. After rinsing the basil leaves, blend them in a food processor with just enough water or olive oil to make a slurry. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to a storage container and freeze until ready to use. Properly stored basil cubes can last up to 6 months.