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How to Cook with Fresh Basil

Bill loves to cook with fresh basil. That’s why, during the warm-weather months, we’ll grow basil in our vegetable garden.

Then, during the winter, we’ll often buy a basil plant at the supermarket. We keep her in the kitchen so that we always have basil leaves we can use for cooking, such as in our marinara sauce.

basil plants and others in garden with dog
Our dog Oscar outside with our container garden that includes basil. Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

If you’ve never cooked with, grown or used fresh basil, let me give you a primer on all of that. Trust me: once you go with fresh versus dried, you’ll never go back.

How to select your basil

Basil is typically available year-round at supermarkets, but it is in season and most flavorful during the summer months.

Fresh basil is a soft green herb that has oval-shaped leaves that dip in the center. It has either smooth or slightly notched edges. Use only the leaves of the basil, which include a fine stem that connects them to the larger basil plant. 

close up of fresh basil leaves AdobeStock low res
Close up look at fresh basil leaves. Photo credit: Adobe Photos.

If you can’t grow herbs at home, you can purchase basil at your local farmers market or grocery store. Like I said, in the off months we’ll purchase a basil plant at the grocery store and keep it alive until it is warm enough to start growing them outside.

My friend Jenn Allen, a retired professional chef who writes the Cook What You Love blog, does something similar. “Fresh basil is my secret weapon. I keep it growing year-round,” she told me. “It grows so easily indoors or out!”

The first option is to store basil in a glass. Submerge the base of the basil bunch in a glass half-filled with water. Store the basil leaves on a kitchen counter away from the oven and other sources of heat. Be sure to avoid direct sunlight when using this method. The basil leaves will keep for four to five days.

To pick the freshest bunch, look for basil that is bright green and free of black or brown spots, wilted leaves or mushy spots. The basil should be fragrant and appear healthy.

What does basil taste like?

Basil has an earthy, sweet, slightly spicy and pungent taste. It is one of the most aromatic and distinctive fresh herbs, with a floral and vegetal scent unlike any other fresh herb.

Personally, I think that fresh basil smells like pepper. Sometimes it even smells like chocolate. Then again, I’m weird about smells, so there you have it.

Basil varieties

Basil is popular in a variety of culinary preparations, including Mediterranean and Asian dishes. Bill’s grandparents used a lot of fresh basil and grew it in their yards like we do. They referred to it as sweet basil or Italian basil.

However, Mediterranean cuisines aren’t the only ones using this herb to cook with. In Asian cuisines, Thai basil is more commonly used.

How to clean basil the right way

You’ll want to clean your basil before using or storing it. Start by running the leaves under cool water. You want to remove any visible dirt or debris.

If you have purchased your basil at the store — rather than picking it from your garden — do this before washing: remove any rubber bands, twist ties or packaging that came with the basil. These will get in the way and/or could end up harming the plant itself if you leave them on.

Need to remove excess moisture after washing? You have two options. One, let the basil air dry on the counter. Or, two, gently pat it with a paper towel.

How to store fresh basil leaves

Basil is a delicate herb and will wilt quickly if it is not properly stored. There are several ways to store basil to preserve its flavor, texture and life.

The second option is to store basil wrapped in a paper towel inside an airtight container. Wash and dry the basil, then wrap it in dry paper towels, add it to the container and then store it in the fridge.

How to dry basil for storage

The third option is to dry your basil leaves. You can dehydrate it by placing it on a sheet tray in your oven at the lowest possible temperature, like Michelle Price does.

“Put the leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet on the lowest temperature in your oven for two hours,” says Price, who writes the Honest and Truly blog. “Once the leaves are dried and crumbly, place them in a jar.”

Or you can use a food dehydrator. Once the basil is fully dried, store it in an airtight container such as a jar or glass container with a locking lid. Price recommends that you use your home-dried basil within six months for maximum flavor and freshness.

How to freeze basil

Frozen basil will not be as fragrant or flavorful as fresh or dried basil. However, it will still add some delicious flavor to your meals.

To freeze fresh basil, first chop the basil. Then, fill the individual compartments of an ice cube tray with the chopped basil. Pour enough cold water over top to cover the herbs and then move the tray to the freezer. Use the frozen basil within four to six months for the best flavor.

Culinary uses for fresh basil

Although basil has a bold taste and aroma, it is a delicate plant. Therefore, it’s important to treat it as such.

Hardy herbs like rosemary or thyme can withstand higher temperatures and longer cooking times. Not so much with basil. Like I said, it’s a delicate herb. So, add it to dishes at the very end of your preparation.

Fresh basil is wonderful as a topping for pizza, fresh pasta, or salads like a caprese salad. Adding fresh basil to marinara and other Italian sauces adds a wonderful depth of flavor. It can also be used in Thai dishes like curries.

Mandy Applegate, who writes the Splash of Taste blog agrees. “You can use it in so many dishes. Of course, there’s pesto,” she says, “but you can use it to finish salads, pizzas and I like to add chopped basil to an omelet to enhance the flavor.”

Speaking of pesto, have you checked out how to make vegan pesto? Yes, you can use fresh basil, of course. But without cheese, you have to get creative in achieving that umami flavor, and we share how to do that.

Using basil when you’re cooking

To add the basil to your dish, you can roughly or finely chop the basil leaves, tear the basil leaves or leave them whole. When chopping your basil leaves, more of their essential oils are released before they are added to the dish. So, for the fullest flavor, tear basil leaves by hand or leave them whole.

Portions of this article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

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