Everyone’s favorite Italian herb, aromatic basil is the perfect partner for tomatoes, and tastes great in salads, pesto sauce or as a simple pizza topping. If you enjoy cooking with basil, you’ll know that those deliciously fragrant leaves are also very delicate, and proper storage is a must to help preserve their flavour for longer.
How to store fresh basil
There are two methods of storing fresh basil, both of which will help to prevent wilting, and keep it at its best for longer.
In a jar of water
The best way of storing basil leaves is with their stems in a jar of water, exactly how you would keep a bunch of flowers. Trim the cut ends of the stems and place the bunch in a jar filled with water. Cover with a plastic bag to protect the leaves and place in your refrigerator. This method can be a bit time-consuming, and may take up a lot of space in the fridge, but if you have the time and the space, giving your basil a drink in this way will keep it fresh for longer than other storage methods.
Wrapped in paper towels
If you don’t have room in your fridge, you can store basil in paper towels, a method that works for most leafy greens. Pick the leaves from their stalks, wash and dry well, then lay them in a single layer on paper towels. The paper towels will absorb any moisture on the leaves, preventing them from rotting, while maintaining a slightly moist atmosphere. Roll up the towels with the leaves inside, and put them in a plastic bag in the fridge.
How long does basil last in the fridge?
For maximum flavour and fresh, tender leaves, basil is best stored in the fridge. However, even when stored correctly it is best to enjoy it as soon as possible, as it can start to deteriorate fairly quickly. Basil stored using the paper towel method will stay fresh for 2 to 3 days, while basil stored in a jar of water may keep for up to a week. If you want to keep your basil for longer than this, you may need to use a preservation method like freezing or drying.
How to preserve basil
In the warmer months it’s easy enough to buy or pick basil just when you need it, but basil does not grow well in cold conditions, and, particularly if you grow your own, it can be a good idea to preserve some of that summer bounty to keep you in basil throughout the winter.
Freezing and defrosting
Freezing basil is a great way to preserve the sweet, aromatic flavour of the herb. The texture is never quite the same after freezing, however, and frozen basil should be used in cooking or to make pesto, rather than in salads or as a garnish. Freezing basil is quick and easy, and can be achieved either by freezing the leaves, or by making a purée and freezing that.
To freeze basil leaves, wash them well, then blanch in boiling water for 2 seconds, transferring them to an ice bath immediately afterwards. Dry thoroughly, then arrange them on a lined baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once the leaves are completely frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag, mark with the date and replace in the freezer.
To make frozen purée, blanch the leaves as above, then add to a food processor with a little olive oil - around 1 tablespoon of oil per cup of basil should do it - and blend until you have a pesto-like paste. Pour into an ice cube tray, so you can easily retrieve a little at a time, and place in the freezer.
Using either of these methods, your basil should keep in the freezer for 3 to 4 months. Afterwards it will still be safe to eat, but may be past its best. To defrost, take as many leaves or cubes of purée as you need and leave in the fridge for an hour or two. If you are adding a small amount to your cooking you may be able to skip this step entirely, as the heat from the rest of the dish will do the job for you.
Drying and using dried basil
Drying basil will make the same stuff you buy from the grocery store in little pots. It can keep for up to a year, which makes it longer-lived than frozen basil, and it makes your kitchen smell delicious too.
To dry basil, first pick the leaves from their stems, then wash and dry very thoroughly. Arrange the leaves on a lined baking sheet and place on the top shelf of your oven, then turn your oven to its lowest heat setting and leave to dry for 2 to 4 hours. Once the leaves appear dry and crumbly, remove them from the oven and make sure all moisture has been removed, otherwise they can go mouldy in storage. Once you’re satisfied the leaves are thoroughly dried, crumble them up and store in an airtight container.
Dried basil works well in pizza sauces and marinades, and can be combined with other herbs to make mixes. It is more potent than fresh basil, however, so use it sparingly. Remember that one teaspoon of dried basil is equivalent to one tablespoon of fresh, and you shouldn’t go far wrong.
Discover the often surprising history of basil, as well as tips and tricks for using it in your cooking, with our guide to rediscovering basil.