Growing, Drying And Using Homemade Basil

Learn to plant, harvest, dry, and store your own basil. Add basil to Italian, Greek, and Thai dishes.

Basil dates back to ancient times. Through a series of twists and turns, it eventually landed on the shores of the New World. Its popularity spans the globe and punctuates the flavor of dishes from Thailand to Genoa, from India to Indiana.


Basil is actually a part of the mint family though its taste is slightly different""more like clove or cinnamon than peppermint or spearmint. Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), the basic culinary variety, was selected as the International Herb Society's 2003 Herb of the Year. Don't let the term "basic" fool you; most of the culinary varieties belong to the basilicum species. Basil varieties differ widely in color, habit, leaf size, flowers, aroma, taste, and flavor intensity. The complete list of culinary varieties is far too extensive to list here, but you'll find the most popular and useful varieties highlighted below.

Sweet basil and Genovese basil are the two most common basil varieties associated with Italian cooking. Sweet basil is the most versatile of the culinary varieties. Genovese basil, a large flat-leaf variety, most often serves as the core ingredient in pesto sauce. Both produce large bright green leaves and white flowers.

Purple basil hybrids (also known as opal basils), such as dark opal and purple ruffles, are less vigorous than common sweet varieties. They add interest and color to the garden and the kitchen. Thai dishes often incorporate purple basil.

Lettuce leaf basil produces thick, crinkled leaves with a less intense flavor than sweet basil. Use lettuce leaf basil to garnish a salad or as an addition to tossed garden greens for a delicate hint of mint.

Cinnamon basil produces pink or purple flowers with bronze or copper flecks on cinnamon-colored stems. True to its name, it fills the air with a distinctive cinnamon scent. Use in Asian and Middle Eastern dishes, sprinkle on fruit salad and in fruit salad dressings, or use in jellies or chutneys. Place cut sprigs in water to repel insects when eating outdoors.

Lemon basil is a slow grower with light green, lemon-scented leaves. Use lemon basil to embellish traditional pesto, chicken, fish, sauces, salad and fruit salad dressings, and dessert.

Growing Basil

Most mega-garden centers carry several popular culinary varieties. Check the local or Internet specialty garden centers for more esoteric varieties. You'll rarely pay more than $4 for a 4" pot. You can also start basil from seeds, which cost around $1 per package, or you can root cuttings in water for transplanting.

Basil is a tender annual, and it does not grow well in temperatures below 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. It grows best in full sunlight, and it prefers a well-drained, well-fertilized soil.

Less is not more when pruning basil: the more aggressively you prune, the more abundant the harvest. Pinch back basil plants regularly to discourage flowering and to encourage branching. Unless you've planted basil as a strictly ornamental plant, pinch back the flower to encourage growth until the first frost. If the plant stops growing, cut it back by at least 1/3 and fertilize to promote new growth.

Unless you are growing massive amounts of basil, consider growing it in containers. While basil is easy to grow, it's not particularly disease resistant. You can confine disease to the container without fear of the problem spreading to other plants. Basil also attracts a few pests, notably the Japanese beetle. Hose down the plants as soon as you notice a problem.

To harvest basil year-round, plant in containers midsummer, and relocate the containers indoors to a sunny location for the winter.

Starting Basil from Seed

When the temperature reaches 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, you can sow basil seeds outdoors. Plant the seeds in the ground at a depth of 1/2", and thin seedlings as needed. When the plants reach 6", begin pinching them back.

You can also start the plants four to six weeks early indoors, but basil grows so fast that it's hardly worth the effort.

To start the plants early:

1. Place seeds on top of a soilless mixture indoors in the late winter or early spring.

2. Cover the flats with plastic, and store in a warm location out of direct sunlight. Germination takes five to seven days.

3. When the first seedlings appear, remove the plastic and move to direct light.

4. Water the seedlings with air-temperature water only when are dry, and be careful not to over water.

5. Move the plants to larger pots after a few weeks.

6. Harden off the plants. Place them outside during the warmest part of the day, and bring them inside for the night until after the last frost.

7. Transplant the plants into the ground or into a larger outdoor container after the last frost.

Transplanting Basil Plants

1. Prepare a light, fertilized soil.

2. Loosen the roots and transplant into the ground or into a container that drains well.

3. Pinch back to just above the lower two sets of leaves.

Moving Basil Indoors for the Winter

1. Relocate basil indoors to a sunny location before the first frost.

2. Water no more than once a week, and allow the soil to dry before watering.

3. Pinch back aggressively to encourage growth.

Harvesting Basil

Cut as much basil as you need during the summer. If you don't want to overwinter the basil indoors, cut all of it for the season's final harvest.

Storing and Drying Basil

Basil does not last long in the refrigerator. If you place the sprigs in water and refrigerate, you can extend the shelf life from a few days to approximately one week.

To dry basil naturally, wash and dry thoroughly. Tie the basil in bunches and hang upside down in a dark, dry location until dried. When thoroughly dried, crumble the leaves and store the basil.

To dry in the oven, wash and dry thoroughly. Place the basil leaves in a single row on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until the leaves crumble. Be careful not to allow the leaves to brown. When the leaves cool, crumble and store the dried basil.

Always store dried basil in airtight jars to preserve the flavor and aroma. Storing dried basil in plastic zipper bags can reduce the essential oils, the source of the aroma and flavor, by up to 50%.

If you prefer cooking with fresh basil, you can achieve the next-best thing by freezing fresh basil. Wash and dry the basil leaves, then place them between sheets of wax paper. Store them in a plastic zipper bag for freezing. Alternatively, you can tear the leaves and place them in ice cube trays with water. After the ice cubes freeze, transfer them to a plastic freezer bag.

Ideas for Using Basil

Look through any ethnic cookbook and you'll find 1001 uses for basil! Basil transforms any good tomato dish into a better tomato dish. For example, add basil to tomatoes and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, and add a splash of vinegar. Add a basil ice cube to spaghetti sauce or tomato soup while cooking or heating. Add basil to a frozen pizza while cooking. Add basil to tomato stuffed with chicken salad. If the recipe calls for tomato, you can safely add basil.

Add basil to condiments: basil butter, basil vinegar, and basil-infused olive oil for salads or dipping.

No discussion of basil uses would be complete without mentioning pesto. You don't even need a recipe to make pesto. Place a few cups of basil leaves and a little olive oil into the food processor. Add more olive oil slowly while processing until you've created a runny paste. Then add Parmesan cheese and garlic to taste. Optionally, add some pine nuts at the end. If you don't any have pine nuts, you can substitute walnuts. You can use pesto as a pasta sauce, but why stop there? Spread pesto sauce on ripe tomato slices or use pesto instead of tomato sauce on pizza for an unexpected treat.

Add freshly dried basil to old potpourri to freshen it instantly. Throw some basil on the coals to repel mosquitoes while grilling. Add basil to wood chips when grilling chicken, fish, or vegetables.

When your imagination finally runs dry, you can start thinking about combining basil with other herbs. Start with basil and oregano, and let your mind wander from there.

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