Ask most people what their favorite herb is, and their response will often be basil. For many of us, this tender annual seems to epitomize the season. Basil tastes its absolute best when it's enjoyed fresh, but thankfully you have a few creative options to preserve the vibrant flavor of this herb that's so strongly associated with summertime.
Whether you scored a huge haul from the farmers market or were blessed with a bountiful harvest from the garden, here are a few ways to preserve your basil and not let it all go to waste.
Sure, basil is available for purchase year-round, but when you're growing your own you want to capture that unique, homegrown flavor and stretch it out as long as possible. There is nothing like crafting a basil-infused Bloody Mary or making pesto in December, using the basil you harvested in the summer months.
Freeze Basil or Make Pesto Starters
Basil is a lively herb that is most often used to finish a dish. It is not frequently incorporated early in the cooking process. For this reason, I find that freezing basil is the best means of capturing its freshness and aromatics.
- Basil cubes: The most efficient way to freeze basil is by making basil cubes. I affectionately refer to these as "flavor bombs," and toss them into soups just before serving to give an herbaceous, last-minute aromatic punch. It is the next best thing to having freshly picked basil on hand. Simply chop basil in a food processor or with a knife and add enough oil or water to coat the leaves. You're looking for the consistency of a thick paste. I aim for a four-to-one ratio of basil to oil. Spoon the herbal mixture into ice cube trays, freeze, and then transfer to well-sealed freezer bags.
- Pesto starters: To make pesto starters, the process is quite similar to making basil cubes. I like to combine equal parts chopped basil and parsley with enough olive oil to form a paste. Optionally, you may add garlic or nuts to the mix, but wait until thawing to add cheese or season with salt and pepper. Upon thawing, follow up with a hefty dousing of good-quality olive oil.
→ Tips on freezing: To compensate for any missing vibrancy of flavor, always choose good-quality cheese and olive oil when you're ready to make pesto. One cube is plenty for dinner for two. If you've forgotten about your pesto starters in the freezer, don't throw them out. They might be less aromatic, but they are a perfect topping for a cooked preparation, such as grilled salmon or grilled, sliced zucchini. For your best results, use a vacuum sealer to prevent any freezer burn.
Infuse Vodka with Basil Leaves
If you have fresh basil leaves on hand, go ahead and muddle basil directly into your Bloody Mary. If you want that fresh, garden-to-glass flavor all year, however, consider infusing basil into vodka. Vodka really captures basil's aroma and taste, and the process couldn't be simpler.
Take one cup of basil leaves and place in a mason jar. Pour in two cups of vodka, cover with a lid, and let it infuse in a cool, dark spot for up to three days. Taste daily for your desired potency level, but if you over-steeped your basil, just add a little extra plain vodka to lessen the intensity. Strain and store in the refrigerator.
Don't Forget About These Options
Don't forget about other ways to preserve your basil harvest. Consider making infused oils and vinegars. Reference my post on making chive blossom vinegar; the process for basil-infused vinegar is similar. For making basil-infused oil, via the hot or cold method, read Emma's detailed post.
Don't dismiss dried basil. Drying basil might be a simple process, but capturing its delicate nature proves somewhat tricky. If you choose to air-dry, oven-dry, or dehydrate your basil, be sure to dry whole — not chopped — leaves. Only crumble the leaves when you're ready to use them. I tend to incorporate dried basil leaves into a blend of herbs to add a subtle, brighter note.
Tell me, basil growers: What are your favorite, tried-and-true ways to preserve your harvest? What challenges have you encountered that you've overcome?
Updated from post originally published July 12, 2015.