Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Basil Basics

Try saying that 10 times, really fast....

The sweet basil that I cut and sold earlier this summer (maybe a month ago?) has grown back, and it's time to save some for our personal use this winter.

Always cut herbs in the morning -the flavor and fragrance are at their strongest levels.

I enjoy using baskets to gather herbs and produce in, with regular kitchen shears to trim off the stalks. The baskets make me feel all 18th-century-ish.

By cutting just the top 6" off each stalk I was able to gather a full basket, and leave the plant more than ready to replenish itself.

A month from now, this little pot will be rounded and full again.

Remember these ice cube trays I found at a rummage sale a month or so ago?
Time to put them to use.

First, strip off the leaves and toss the stems. If you are short on basil, the stems can be used, but I'm in no danger of running out of this herb anytime soon.
Today I'm trying two ways of preserving this harvest, both freezing the chopped leaves in water as well as dehydrating a batch. This is my second attempt at dehydrating - the first time involved strawberries and one of the round dehydrators. It was a total failure and the house smelled odd for days.

Last winter I bought this toaster oven specifically because it had a dehydrate feature. This is it's maiden voyage. Of course, the owners manual explains how to use the dehydrate feature in the simplest terms: use a mesh rack (not included with oven -of course), put food product on mesh rack, press "Dehydrate" button. That's it. No clue as to what temperature the oven is running at when it's drying, or how long to leave various foods in.

That makes this an experiment, versus a recipe.

The metal rack was found at a rummage sale, and DH trimmed it with a SawsAll to fit the toaster oven. I think it was originally a grill rack.

According to The Dehydrator Bible (over on the shelf to the right), the basil needs to dry at 110 degrees for 16-18 hours. Again, no clue as to the temperature the oven is using, and the timer will only set to 90 minutes.

I'll start with that -I can always reset it as needed. The largest and best leaves are laid out in a single layer, with room for the air to circulate. While they're drying, let's go back to the ice cube trays.

Using a very sharp knife, mince and chop the remainder of the leaves. (If you want to dry the entire harvest, only pick the leaves when they will be dried immediately. The fresher they are, the stronger and more flavorful the dried product will be).

After chopping the leaves, pack each compartment full, then fill with cold water.

That amount of chopped leaves was enough to fill three of the ice cube trays. Keep in mind, this method is good not only for single herbs, but for combinations as well. It's just as easy to harvest basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and sage (Italian Seasoning),chop them up and blend - then freeze. Each compartment should equal approx one tablespoon of spice - perfect for dropping into a simmering pot of soup in deep December.

When the trays are packed full of spice and water,freeze. After the cubes are completely frozen they can be popped out and stored in a ziploc bag until needed.

Meanwhile, back at the toaster oven it turns out that whatever temperature this oven is drying at, it's more than sufficient.

The basil leaves are dry and crunchy after 50 minutes. So much for 16-18 hours.
(The color in this photo is a little off - the actual leaves are dark green).

All that's left to do is put the dried leaves into a labeled air-tight container. If it's possible, the leaves should be left as whole as possible to retain their flavor.

One last reminder: whether frozen or dried, fresh herbs are much stronger than the stuff you buy at the grocer's, so use a little less at first.


  1. Love the ice cube thing! How does it turn out compared to freezing basil leaves, without water, in a ziplock?

  2. Oh there's another idea - I've never tried that! AND -that reminds me of a friend who freezes fresh fish fillets in zip lock bags filled with cold water -says it keeps them fresher. I wonder if it would work with herbs as well (complete basil leaves IN WATER-in zip locks -frozen). One thing I noticed is that it takes the ice cube trays longer to freeze solid.

  3. how do i revive my basil plant it's out of leaves mostly sticks, well a few leaves. I neglected it.

  4. Lucia -
    I have never had much luck reviving basil. Usually I just let it go to seed, harvest the seeds when they're dry, and replant a potful.

    Also, to keep the plant bushy and full, cut off the seed heads as soon as possible.