Drying Basil

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Genovese Basil, just about ready for drying.

Genovese Basil, just about ready for drying.


Drying herbs is one of the easiest ways to beef up the medicine chest and add a little extra to winter meals. When you walk in my house this time of the year, it often smells like licorice. That’s because I have basil hanging to dry from various supports like light fixtures and cabinet handles.
Freshly harvested basil.

Freshly harvested basil.


Basil is great with any kind of tomato dish, and a requirement for winter dishes like minestrone and pizza. You can also freeze fresh basil, and if I had unlimited freezer space (in my dreams!) I would probably preserve it that way as I wouldn’t be constantly dodging the bunches of hanging herbs and the flavor is better. Freezing is the best way to preserve basil for pesto; just whiz the leaves in the food processor and drizzle with lemon juice. When you’re ready to make pesto, toss it back in the food processor, let it defrost for about 20 minutes and add the rest of your ingredients. I also mix bolting lettuce leaves half and half with the basil; it makes a slightly milder version (add a bit of sugar if the lettuce is really bitter). For many recipes, dried basil works just fine, so I try to dry enough to have at least two pints of crumbled leaves on hand. Since dried leaves shrink dramatically and you’ll also be crushing them, this means the equivalent of a five-gallon bucket of fresh basil.
You can just see the immature flower heads in the center of the leaves.

You can just see the immature flower heads in the center of the leaves.


The best time to harvest basil (as with most herbs) is just before it starts to flower. This is when the essential oils and plant constituents are strongest. You can use the cut-and-come-again method quite nicely with basil, which means you can plant less. At the end of the year, well before the first frost (few things look as sad as frozen basil), pull up the plants to dry the last batch. You can use the method below for almost all herbs, although if they’re wild-harvested, I soak them in salt water for about 10 minutes before prepping them to dry, as it gets rid of insects. Culinary herbs from the garden seem to be less likely to have infestations, so a good rinse usually is all they need. The process is simple:
Cut off roots and ratty leaves.

Cut off roots and ratty leaves.


1. Cut off the roots.
2. Strip the bottom two or three inches of leaves off and discard; these tend to be ratty, pale or mold-spotted.
3. Wash well in cold water; make sure you get both sides of the leaves.
4. Use string or rubber bands to bundle five or six basil stalks together; shake off the excess water.
5. Hang basil bundles to dry; make sure they have plenty of air circulation. Depending on humidity and air currents, expect the basil to dry completely in about a week or 10 days.
Bundled and ready to hang.

Bundled and ready to hang.


Basil hangers.

Basil hangers.


6. Take the bundles down and strip the dried leaves off over a large platter or sheet of paper. Put the leaves in a jar and crush with a wooden plunger or spoon.
7. Label, cover tightly and store in the pantry; it should be good for at least a year (although I often run out before the next crop is ready to harvest).

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