How To Harvest Basil and How To Use It

How to harvest Basil – If you planted basil in your garden and all has gone according to plan, by midsummer you’ll have lots of fresh basil luring you with its minty aroma and threatening to go to seed any minute. As a shameless basil addict, I think this is a moment of pure heaven! However, if you were ambitious in your planting, you may be wondering what on earth you’re going to do with all this goodness.

Here are some tips for harvesting, using, and preserving the fresh basil from your garden.

How to Harvest Basil

how to havest basil
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You can pick basil leaves as needed at any time– in fact, harvesting encourages the plant to produce more leaves. Morning is the best time of day, but don’t hesitate to pick basil whenever you need it. For best results:

  • Harvesting Small Amounts: Pick a few leaves off each plant, rather than cutting off a whole stem. While you’re picking, periodically pinch off the branch tips, to encourage the plant to fill out. Also, remove any flower buds and either discard or use as a garnish.
  • Harvesting Larger Amounts: Harvest the leaves from the top down, cutting back up to a third of the total plant height. Be sure to cut or pinch right above a leaf pair rather than leaving a stub. In a few weeks, your basil plants will be ready to harvest again.
  • Final Harvest: At the end of the season (before the first frost), cut the stems to the ground and pick off all the leaves. Add the stems to the compost pile, and bring the leaves indoors for an afternoon of cooking and preserving.

How to Harvest Basil for Drying


There’s some debate on the best time for harvesting basil for drying. Some gardeners insist the flavor is best when you harvest at the same time as you would for fresh basil– that is, just before the plants flower, when the leaves are lush.

Others believe letting the plant flower before harvesting basil improves the flavor of the leaves used for drying. Mature leaves are more pungent, with a more intricate mix of essential oils.

I’m in the latter camp, but either way, dried basil from your garden is a huge improvement over anything you’ll find in stores.

It’s much easier to distinguish weak or diseased leaves immediately after harvesting basil, so if you’re planning to dry the leaves, groom the plants before drying. Pick off any yellow or spotted leaves.

Warm, dry shade is best for drying herbs. An attic is ideal, but the top of a cabinet works. Bundle whole groomed plants with garden twine, and suspend the bundles in an attic.

If you have just a few plants, cut whole plants into several pieces and dry in a paper grocery bag placed on it’s side on top of a cabinet, or high up on a shelf.

Leave for 1-2 weeks, then strip the leaves from the stems over an open newspaper. Pick out any twiggy material or coarse stems. The leaves should be dry and crumbly, but don’t break them up too much. Whole leaves store better than crumbled leaves, so it’s better to leave the dried leaves as intact as possible when storing, and crumble them at the last minute.

If any of the leaves are leathery, turn the oven on for 2 minutes, then turn it off. Make sure the oven is off. Place the leaves on a baking tray and put it in the closed oven. Leave for half an hour, then process as above.

Dump the leaves into canning jars and store in cool, dry shade. Warm, dry shade is best for drying, but cool, dry shade is best for storage.

Use dried basil in sauces, marinades, or sprinkled over roasted chicken. Dried lemon or lime basil retains its citrussy edge, and is great in seafood and shellfish dishes.

Basil stored this way will still smell like basil a year later, even if you’ve been opening the jar and using it throughout the year.

How to Use Basil

Your first task is to remove the leaves from the stems, discard any dead or spotted leaves, rinse the basil thoroughly, and allow it to air dry (or pat dry with a towel). What to do with all this wonderful basil? The very writing of this article has me craving Chilled Linguine with Gorgonzola and Basil (from the Whole Foods Market Cookbook), but there’s no end to yummy ways to use this herb:

Basil Tea:

how to use basil as tea

Basil is a member of the mint family, and basil tea can be served after meals as a digestive aid. To make fresh basil tea:

  • Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 tablespoons of fresh, chopped basil.
  • Step for 5 minutes.
  • Sweeten with raw honey to taste.

A variety of basil known as Tulsi (or Holy Basil) is considered a sacred and healing herb in India, and Tulsi tea is a popular stress-relieving and health-promoting tonic.

Basil Fragrance:

You can also add dried basil to potpourri, sachets, and homemade cleaning products to give a fresh, clean scent.

How to Use Basil as Food

Basil has been used around the world for centuries with good reason– it adds a delicious depth of flavor that can not be matched by other herbs. Some of the more popular culinary uses of basil include:

1. Classic Pesto

One of the best known sweet basil based recipes, pesto alla Genovese is fantastic on pasta, pizza and salads, or served with meat or fish. This recipe calls for fresh aromatic basil, raw garlic, aged parmesan, pine nuts and extra virgin olive oil.

For a dairy-free and vegetarian version (parmesan contains animal products!), this pesto isn’t quite such a traditional recipe, but it’s pretty close and packs a flavor-filled punch.

2. Dressings and Marinades

An incredibly versatile herb, basil can be used in all manner of dressings and marinades. Lemon juice and honey perfectly complement basil’s pungency in this delicious salad dressing while a basil, balsamic and garlic marinade is perfect on chicken or tofu.

3. Vinegars and Oils

how to use basil as vinegar and oils

Preserving the flavors of basil through vinegar or oil infusions is a simple way to store and use your excess basil leaves, without the need for fancy equipment.

Try making this basil vinegar for use in salad dressings, marinades and other recipes requiring vinegar. Likewise, basil oil can be used for all these recipes and more– including as a healthy drizzle over cooked vegetables or as a dipping sauce for warm, crusty breads.

4. Herbal Butter

Flavored butters are a wonderful tasty addition to grilled meats and vegetables, pasta, potatoes and breads. Save money and preserve your basil bounty by making your own flavored organic butter– this lemon basil garlic butter recipe is especially impressive.

5. Basil Salt

how to use basil as salt

Yet another way to use your basil leaves while sneakily imparting a flavor burst to your food, basil salt is surprisingly easy to make. Follow this two-ingredient recipe.

6. Sauces and Soups

One of the most classic pairings in Italian cuisine is tomato and basil– which is why you can’t go wrong adding some fresh or dried basil herb to your tomato based pasta and pizza sauces, along with those for cottage pie, lasagna and more.

7. Breads and Pastas

Don’t just serve basil on your pastas or bread, mix it into the dough of these delicious staples.

This basil and garlic fettuccine is so flavorful it doesn’t require much more than a light butter or olive oil sauce and the flecks of basil liven up the dinner plate. Stick with a Mediterranean theme by dipping warm chunks of this whole-wheat basil focaccia bread into extra virgin olive oil.

8. Desserts

dessert from basil

Basil’s peppery flavor doesn’t just lend itself to savory dishes, it actually works surprisingly well in a great many desserts too!

Lemon basil yogurt cake, mint basil syrup, strawberry basil shortcakes, basil ice-cream, strawberry galette or basil lime sorbet are just some of the ways you can satisfy your sweet tooth while making use of your basil plant.

9. Drinks

Add a little zing to many cocktails with a few torn basil leaves– gin and tonic, vodka and soda, or even a mojito will all benefit from its peppery flavor.

For something a little more complex– that really lets the basil shine– try a strawberry and basil margarita; a basil and lime vodka cooler; a strawberry, rhubarb and basil Bellini; or a cucumber and basil vodka.

Herb infused alcohol-free drinks are equally delicious– cool down this summer with sweet basil lemonade or a cucumber, mint and basil soda. For a warming, tropical feel this pineapple basil tea has you covered, while smoothie lovers will appreciate a banana and basil shake.

10. General Cooking

The list of ways to use basil in the kitchen doesn’t end here– it has a myriad of applications from stir fries to scrambled eggs, from curries to tagines. Experiment with your basil harvest and you’ll soon discover how truly versatile this delicious herb can be.

Soups, too, are a fantastic way to enjoy basil. Aside from the classic tomato and basil soup, the herb pairs well with carrot, zucchini, mixed vegetable, pea, broccoli or chicken.

How to Use Basil For Medicine

Basil should be part of everyone’s natural medicine cabinet– some varieties of the plant are actually as strong as anti-inflammatory drugs and have been shown to reduce swelling in arthritic patients by up to 73% in just 24 hours!

Here’s how you can harness its therapeutic properties:

11. Basil Essential Oil

essential oils of basil

Make your own basil essential oil from your organic and homegrown plant and reap its many health benefits. Including relief from nausea, motion sickness, indigestion, constipation, respiratory problems, stress, uneven skin tone, insect bites and poor circulation. This tutorial provides a step-by-step guide to making your own essential oils.

To make a less potent sweet basil oil (a simpler process), infuse basil leaves in a carrier oil like jojoba or olive for three to six weeks. This can be used to soothe insect bites, to rub into sore muscles or to give a relaxing massage.

12. Steam Away Headaches

Because basil works as a muscle relaxant and has analgesic properties. Steam infused with the leaves of the plant is said to be an effective treatment for tension headaches.

Add a tablespoon of dried basil leaf, a handful of fresh leaves or a few drops of basil oil to three cups of water and bring to a boil. Transfer immediately to a large, heat proof bowl. Drape a towel over your head and lean over the bowl, positioning the towel to keep in as much steam as possible. Breathe in the vapors for up to ten minutes.

Alternatively, you can diffuse some basil essential oil through the room, or massage a drop or two (mixed with a carrier oil) onto the temples.

13. Calm the Stomach

Basil tea is great for soothing an upset stomach or helping digestion. Steep three basil leaves in a cup of boiling water and drink three or four times a day, between meals.

It’s also thought to relieve symptoms of acid reflux, especially when mixed with a spoon of raw honey.

14. Bites and Stings

In addition to its painkilling properties. Basil oil is both antimicrobial and antioxidant according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, making it a fantastic addition to any topical healing salve.

These properties are probably what makes basil so successful at relieving the pain and itching associated with insect bites or bee stings. While you can apply some basil oil to the affected area. You can also chop or chew up a basil leaf and apply it to the bite for quick relief.

How to Preserve Basil

To store Basil for later use:

Frozen Basil:

frozen basil

Freeze the fresh leaves by packing them tightly in an airtight container or plastic bag. Simply break off chunks as needed for garden-fresh flavor in recipes. You can also freeze basil and water in ice cubes for dropping into soups.

Dried Basil:

dried basil for later use

Dry basil by hanging stems in bunches, or spreading leaves out on a tray, in a dark, well-ventilated room. Once the leaves are good and dry (about a week), you can crumble them into an airtight container.

Cooked in Recipes:

Nothing makes me happier than a winters’ worth of pesto sauce, neatly stacked in the freezer. And if you also have too many tomatoes and garlic, then you’re really in business! Spend an afternoon making marinara, stewed tomatoes, and soups for freezing or canning.


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