Sunday, August 15, 2010

Garden Journal 8/15/10: How To and, More Importantly, Hot Not To Store Fresh Basil

Basil Bouquet

Realization of the Day:
It's a lot easier to write off a garden disaster as a learning experience when it doesn't involve your entire crop.

The photo above illustrates one of the best ways to store fresh basil: in a fragrant little kitchen tabletop bouquet. Sweet looking, nice smelling, and obviously some very happy fresh cut herbs.

That's how I did things last year, when I had so much green and purple basil growing in the garden it kept bursting into bloom faster than I could use it up. This year I had a learning experience—with my one measly plant, which is why this post isn't called something chirpy like Hip Hip Hooray! It's Pesto Time Again! as was originally intended before the harvest.

basil bed 7-13-09
Basil, Peppers, and Some Really Pathetic Eggplant Plants on 7-13-09

basil bed 8-20-09
The Same Bed on 8-20-09

See what I mean about last year? And that was only one bed. There were at least two others with basil growing in them. These are the kind of photos that make me so happy when I look back at them. Well, except for the eggplant plants. I harvested a grand total of one eggplant last year—strangely brown, totally bug eaten, about the size of a large marble.

The first year I gardened in Missouri, I grew eggplant for the first time (along with about five dozen other things I'd never grown before). I don't think I'd ever even eaten eggplant, and yet I ordered seeds, planted them in containers, transplanted the seedlings into the garden, and ended up with something like twenty eggplant plants, all brimming for weeks with gorgeous fruits. Nobody needs that much eggplant.

But I digress. I just figured I'd mentioned the eggplant plants rather than try to ignore them and hope nobody asked what they were—and let you know that I really can, and maybe someday even will again, do better. And then someday I'll write more about growing eggplant.

Okay, so the basil. Last year my 6/20/09 garden journal entry was called Harvesting the First Green & Purple Basil of the Season (And the Best Ways to Store Your Fresh Basil), and I wrote about how I usually stored rinsed and nearly dry basil leaves with a paper towel in a plastic bag that's had most of the air pressed out of it and been shut sealed with a clothespin. I also mentioned that I'd been told fresh basil stores well in a pitcher or glass of water on the kitchen counter, and that I wanted to try it.

I did try it, and it worked beautifully. Then this spring I tried the same thing with fresh parsley and wrote about it in a post aptly titled The Best Way to Store Fresh Parsley (and Other Herbs like Basil). In that post I mentioned that a lot of sources advise you to store your fresh herbs in a glass of water in the refrigerator, but I don't find it necessary. Herbs, especially basil, thrive outside in the sun and heat, and if the water is keeping them from wilting there's really no reason to chill them. Besides, I know I'd probably reach into the fridge and knock the glass over an hour after putting it in there.

So now that you know how you should store your fresh basil, let me tell you how not to store it.

Basil plant in sweet pepper bed 8-4-10
Basil and Sweet Pepper Plants on 8-4-10

Basil plant before harvesting 8-4-10
Basil Plant Before Harvesting on 8-4-10

This is the one basil plant I bought as a seedling back in the spring and put in the ground along with 10 purchased sweet pepper plants back on June 19th (you can read more about setting up that bed—which is doing great—here).

Basil plant after harvesting 8-4-10
This is the basil plant after harvesting it, along with my freshly cut bounty in the colander and some volunteer kale I picked from that bed for the chickens.

When I harvest basil, I never pull the trimmed plants out of the ground, because the basil will grow back. You can read more about that in my previous post, How To Keep Your Basil Plants Growing Into Fall.

It's best to cut basil and other herbs in the morning, and even though I did, the leaves were already a little droopy from the heat. The shape of the branches didn't lend themselves to a bouquet, so I immersed the basil in a big bowl of cold water to revive it, which is a great way to bring life back to all sorts of greens: lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, etc. I've even stored freshly picked green beans that I couldn't process and freeze right away (and didn't have room for in the fridge) in a bucket of cold water overnight.

I set the bowl of submerged basil on the kitchen counter, planning to trim off the leaves onced they'd perked up, and then use the plastic bag/paper towel/clothespin/refrigerator storage method instead of the countertop bouquet.

And then I forgot about it.

Basil blackened after soaking in water  8-4-10
And this is what I ended up with several hours later.

Basil is temperamental. The leaves quickly turn dark after being chopped, and pesto gets that ugly discolored layer on top unless you cover it with oil. But I never thought that submerging it in water would do this.

8/16/10 Update: Thanks to the anonymous commenter who rightly pointed out that "Basil does not like cold. The leaves turn black from cold water, frost, and sometimes from being in the refrigerator." This is one of those duh moments. I of course knew this (basil will blacken in the garden well before temps get cold enough to cause frost), but I didn't translate it to the cold water, which, in my defense, wasn't all that cold. And although basil is—sometimes, for some people—successfully stored in the cold refrigerator, that's still probably what it was—the temperature, not the water.

I salvaged about 2 cups of leaves from this mess, wrapped them up with a paper towel and put them in the fridge, and promptly forgot about them. Note: basil won't keep in a plastic bag in the fridge for 11 days.

There is still hope. The harvested plant is already growing back, and I have another basil plant in the greenhouse. The quest for pesto—to be continued. . .

In the meantime, my favorite basil recipes are listed below.

Are you growing basil this year? How's it going? Do anything stupid Have any learning experiences to share?

Other basil posts:

Farmgirl Fare recipes that call for basil:
Purple Basil Pesto and the Easiest White Bean Dip/Spread Recipe Ever (this is my favorite lower fat, fuller flavor pesto recipe that calls for roasted almonds and fresh tomatoes and works with green basil, too)
Savory Tomato Pesto Pie with a No-Fail Biscuit Crust (one of my most popular recipes)
Simple Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce (no blanching required)

©, the herbalicious foodie farm blog where I love that little vintage Sunday tea towel in the top photo. Now if only I actually spent Sundays that way.


  1. Oh no! I'm sorry to hear about your ruined basil harvest! That is such a bummer!! I've never grown purple basil before. Does it taste the same as the green one?

  2. I grow it every year in a big container on my deck and it is always lush and full and more than I can use or give away.

    This year, due to high temperatures and non-stop sun, the leaves are tougher than usual. It needs watering a lot, and coddling. I have constantly pinched it back because it wants to flower. New England has been unusually hot and dry like everywhere else.

    On a better note, grape tomatoes grown in Earth boxes have produced a bumper crop.

    Something stupid? One year in the 80's I was half awake and mixed up fertilizer for my deck garden.

    I watered everything...window boxes, tomato plants, cucumbers. A very lush year!

    Everything died. It was rug cleaner I had mixed by mistake.

    Sorry you have had such a negative experience! Next year will be better!

  3. SUCK. You'll get another harvest, I'm sure.

    I've already done one round of pesto-ing (totally a verb in my kitchen) and freezing in ice cube trays. The plants could stand with another harvesting for round two now, but since I also have tomatoes up the wazoo (that sounds painful, right?) jalapenos to pickle, carrots to puree and freeze for the child, cabbage to make into sauerkraut, pears starting to ripen about a month early, and, oh yeah, A BABY TO CARE FOR, I might not get to it just yet.

    Is it winter yet?

  4. Basil does not like cold. The leaves turn black from cold water, frost and sometimes from being in the refrigerator. I store mine on the counter in a vase of water. 2010 seems to be a slow year for basil. My basil from seed did much better than the seedlings I bought. I still has enough to freeze as pesto. But the crop was nothing like last year. Love your pictures of the purple basil. Does it taste different too?

  5. Hey there instead of super cold water... which somethings don't like try water with a spritz of white vinegar. I use that to freshen up droopy anything:lettuce, pea pods, spinach. and on the plus side it will disinfect them a bit too :)

  6. Keep your chin up. Last year I had a terrible time with basil- I got only enough for one small pesto batch. My problem was hungry slugs. This year, more basil than I can handle at the moment. Next year you will have your fair share. Reading about successful garden stories can be inspiring, but the unsuccessful stories are just as interesting! It helps us all relate in knowing we aren't the only ones that don't have the perfect garden... really can any real persons' garden be? I always tell myself and other gardeners- every year is different! Next year you'll be swimming in basil :)

  7. I'm sorry to see that your basil got icky! I've had pounds of it (seriously) rotting in my fridge all summer...
    I have 40 dinners worth of pesto in the freezer, and about 40 basil plants that have completely bolted because I couldn't bear the thought of MORE PESTO! My lesson of the summer is, you really don't need to plant 4 beds of basil, no matter how much you like pesto. I just couldn't bear to kill any of my thinnings, so I kept transplanting them! It's my first solo gardening adventure, and they're all still my babies!

  8. It'll grow back before you know it! Does anyone have an opinion on freezing your pureed basil with out without the rest of the pesto ingredients? I'm finding that basil holds its color better if I freeze just basil and olive oil. I can always add pine nuts and parmesan to the dish separately I figure.

  9. Hey Valhalla,

    I have had success with freezing the pesto using all the ingredients (though honestly I never use the pine nuts in pesto b/c of the expense- how much am I missing out I'm not sure). I have heard suggestions to not add the parm with the mixture, but I have no complaints, plus at least you have every ingredient proportionally measured out in each serving instead of worrying about adding it later.

  10. What a bummer :-( I've never made pesto... I want to try it, though.

    I dehydrate TONS of it to put up for the winter.

  11. Even after reading this post, I did the very same thing. I put the leaves in a bowl of water to rinse and left them on the counter overnight. You know what I found the next morning. I started to go through the leaves but didn't have the patience so it went to the compost pile.

    I feel your pain. Hopefully I have fully learned the lesson. haha

  12. The purple basil in my windowsill garden has lots of leaves now! I'm really excited, and thank youf or your tips!


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

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