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ingredients and techniques

Basil: Harvesting, Storing, and Preserving

meg's picture


Our basil plants have been the saving grace of our garden this year. Poor, first-year soil? Check. Drought? Check. Heat wave? Check. Rampant insects? Check. This summer has felt like the plagues of Egypt, and yet our basil not only grew, but it prospered mightily. Never wilted, never withered, never needed rescuing from insects or intense sun or blight. Our basil has behaved like a true lady.

To give you an idea of how massive and bushy our basil plants turned out to be, we had to cut the stalks with a machete after ruining (a.k.a. putting a dent in) a decently sharp, heavy-duty kitchen knife. We finally decided that it was time to harvest our basil before fall sets in. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, and we spent the better part of nine hours dealing with the ramifications of the harvest. If we had started at 9 a.m. that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but we leisurely began at around 3 p.m. I don’t think we realized what we were in for until we had stripped the leaves from the plants and had a garbage bag full.

Basil is a very tender herb. Despite the fact that it’s as tough as Attila the Hun in the garden (at least in our garden), once picked, basil wilts at an alarming rate. Meaning, when you pick basil, plan on using it the same day. If you must keep it for a day or two, either stick the stems directly in a vase of water or, if you only have the de-stemmed leaves, wrap them in a damp paper towel and place them in a plastic bag in the crisper.

A simple way of dealing with excess basil is to chop it fine with a very sharp knife (basil bruises easily) and whirl it in a food processor with a few tablespoons of olive oil (depending on how much basil you treat in this way, you will need to add oil accordingly). Then, simply pour the shredded basil into containers or ice cube trays and freeze. As you need a hit of fresh basil flavor throughout the winter, it will be easy enough to pull out a cube of basil and toss it into your stew or use it in a salad dressing.

You can also make a simple basil butter. If you remember my post on browned sage butter, this follows the same basic idea, but happens to be a lot simpler. Allow your unsalted butter to come to room temperature. You can make your butter as strongly flavored or mild as you like—we’ve opted for the stronger side as we have so much basil to use. A good average is 3 cups packed basil leaves, finely chopped per pound of butter. In a stand mixer or by hand, whip the butter until light and fluffy. Chop your basil leaves finely and add them to the butter, beating further to distribute the basil evenly throughout the butter. Then, simply divide the butter in fourths, place each fourth on a sheet of wax or parchment paper, and roll it up tightly. Place in a plastic freezer bag and freeze until you need it. This is excellent on toast, in eggs, as a finishing butter for meats and vegetables, and in pretty much anything savory.

Other articles you might enjoy: Pesto, Pesto Tabbouleh, Basil Shortbread


grandma claire's picture


john's picture

Thank you so much for your kind words about my family's cookbook! Do you or your children have a favorite recipe from JOY? The version you probably have (first published in 1943) is one of our favorites too.

DORI's picture

i have had an older version of this cookbook which by the way is tattered torn and even burned lol i just love this book i have others but 99% of the time this is the book i reach for.

john's picture

We see a lot of "well-seasoned" copies too! Just how we like them... used and abused.

Becky P's picture

It's hard to believe that I'm in my 50's and had never picked up Joy of Cooking until cruising through the library about a month ago. How could I have missed this? Sigh.

Anyway... This past spring I discovered the joy of growing herbs. I think I had 6 or 7 varieties of basil and, other than pesto, I didn't really know what to do with any of it. I grew Sweet, Greek, Genovese, Lemon, Thai, Cinnamon, Dwarf Greek, Lettuce Leaf... we had lots and lots of basil. I live near Phoenix and found that basil gets bitter when it gets really hot, so next spring I'm going to want to preserve lots of basil. Other than pesto and browned butter (which I can't wait to try), can you give any suggestions on how to use such basil bounty?

meg's picture

We, too, absolutely adore basil. We usually grow sweet basil and Thai basil (I was amazed at how large basil plants can get in hot weather, with or without rain!). As for preserving a big basil harvest, we like to make basil butter (not necessarily browned butter--just basil chopped up very fine with some salt and pepper and maybe even garlic) and freeze it. We also chop up basil leaves and put them in ice cube trays, then cover them with olive oil and freeze. That way, whenever you make pasta sauce or soup or anywhere you want a flavor boost, you can just pop a cube of the oil and basil out of the freezer and into the pot.

You can also try drying the basil leaves. Since you live in a somewhat dry area, you will probably have great success with this (here, it's so humid that you really need a dehydrator to do this). Simply hang basil branches upside down in a hot, dry place (not in direct sunlight) until dry. You can leave the leaves whole or crumble them and store in an airtight jar.

You can also make basil oil for salad dressings and for finishing off dishes, but the problem with herb oils is that they only keep for about a week or so.

Becky P's picture

Thank you, I'll try all your suggestions next spring. It's kind of sad that I grew so much basil and don't have any preserved. Oh well, I'll do better next year.

This was my first year to grow basil from seed and I was amazed at how hardy the plants were. They got HUGE and the Thai basil was beautiful! I kept thinking that those purple flowers would make some really pretty vinegar but wasn't sure if the flavor would work.

meg's picture

I can see no reason why Thai basil leaves wouldn't be great in vinegar. I would experiment with some inexpensive white vinegar and see how it turns out. You can also use chive flowers (which are absolutely lovely) to infuse vinegar.

I have also made a simple syrup infused with basil flowers. You can use the syrup in iced tea or cocktails, and it's delicious. Simply simmer 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water, along with the basil flowers, for about 10 minutes. Cover and steep for half an hour. Strain out the flowers and store the syrup in the fridge.

Becky P's picture

Sounds lovely. The Thai basil would be great in a simple syrup. I want to grow lemon thyme next year which might make a good syrup as well. Herbs are so fun to experiment with. Thanks!

jorodee's picture

I received the Joy as a wedding gift in 1979 and it has been my go-to over any other book (and there have been many) throughout the years. With the advent of electronic media, I have pared down my collection of cookbooks to just a few, including of course my treasured, albeit tattered and stained Joy. And I'm so glad to have found your site!

john's picture

We're glad you found our site and very happy that JOY made the cut where so many others did not... I'd like to think we still offer something Google cannot provide: trustworthy guidance, carefully curated information, and dependable recipes. Please drop us a line if you have any suggestions or things to share as we forge ahead with a new edition!


Emily's picture

I am so happy to have found your sit! Joy was one of my first cookbooks, and at age 35 I still go to it first whenever I need a cooking reference (such as cook time for hard boiled eggs) or for recipe ideas. I found your site while searching for ways to preserve my basil and sage harvests, and will be trying out your herbed butter recipe. Thanks!

meg's picture

Awesome, Emily! We're so happy you're a JOY fan and that you found the site! The basil butter is great--it really keeps the basil flavor fresh, and it's so nice to have a taste of summer in the middle of winter. Also try the browned sage butter recipe on the site--it's insanely good. Cheers!

Carrie's picture

yes.... having basil all year round is like preserving summer! I use the freezer cube method to make pesto in the future everything but the nuts (pine or walnuts) and cheese of choice out.
1 cup portion =
1 c. basil packed
1-2 cloves of garlic (mine is from my garden and still oozing it's lovely oils when I peel it mmmm)
1/4 c oil (I use olive oil)
whiz it all up and put in ice cube trays - freeze - pop into jar or freezer bag = 1 cup ready to complete later in time.
Ready Now -
take them out and thaw in processor/blender
add 1 1/2 tbsp more or less to your liking of nuts of choice
then 1/2 c cheese (parmesan, romano..)
If too thick then add more oil or pasta water/vegetable water.
Voila Pesto.
Make lots of cubes like this and portion by cups you think you will use in recipies of all kinds.. doesn't have to be for pesto either. One cube or two added to many sauces will be great without going to next stage.

Thessalonika Benny's picture

I have had your book for many, many joyous years. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, though I only had 2 suitcases for 2 years, so I left it at home. I know you have a recipe for brownies with cocoa powder that isn't all cocoa powder and butter. Could you PLEASE send it to me? I am not going to make the recipes I see on the web - too much cocoa for the flour. I don't remember the ratio being so much... just want a simple brownie.
Thank you.

meg's picture

Hey, no problem! Of course we can give it to you. Could you tell us which edition of the book you have? It will help us track down the correct recipe. Also, if you wouldn't mind, contact us through our Facebook page for the recipe--it's much easier to copy recipes onto Facebook than the comments on the website. If you don't have a Facebook account, that's fine. Just let us know and we'll post it here. Thanks!

Pipermkt's picture

I started with "how to skin a squirrel"! I moved on to pie dough and pastries. My family loves the Butterfly cinnamon rolls best. It's a treat to create your Egg Rolls. I've learned to make beautiful sauces, your family made me a gourmet chef my family enjoys. I'm looking forward to learning Asian along with Indian cuisine Korean Bar B Q. Thank you for so many years in my kitchen. Sally Johnson

meg's picture

Thank you so much for your kind words! This is exactly what we love to hear--that we help people explore cooking and find enjoyment in it. We hope to be part of your kitchen for generations to come!

Janet O'Connor's picture

The Joy was a wedding gift in 1983 and has become my standard wedding gift, as well. When I did a search to see how to harvest fresh basil from my garden, I should have known to look here first! Thank you for being such a fantabulous cook book... and friend over the years!

john's picture

It's comments like yours that keep us going. Thank you for the kind words... and friendship!

Monica Morin's picture

I have frozen Thai basil in the past, and when we need some, i just take some out and microwave it for a minute before chopping it.

Kathryn's picture

1967 I received as a wedding present my first Joy of Cooking. I have always told my kids that if we ever ran out of food, we would always have Joy of Cooking. It had collected enough food over the years so that, if added to a pot of boiling water, we could always have a rich, nourishing soup. I am ready for my third Joy of Cooking and it is going be on my iPad. So no longer a source of food in hard times.

meg's picture

Kathryn, thank you so much for commenting. We love to hear stories like yours. The best cookbooks are the ones we use again and again, and we have tried over the years to grow and evolve along with the families who have been using our book for decades. We hope you enjoy the app--please let us know if you have any questions about it at all. You can email us directly through the website. Thanks again for telling us your Joy story!

Kathrine Rickerd's picture

Thanks for your post! I'll definitely try!

davida's picture

my grandma left us the of cooking she loved it and now i love it....miss my nana

Jenny Nel's picture

Hi there? I am from South Africa and have hot and dry weather. I grow my herbs in my backyard just for the love of it. They are all in pots and only for my personal use in the kitchen for my family. I dry my herbs in the microwave. They look much better than any shop bought dried versions and I am sure they taste better too. After I dried them I put it into bottles or in plastic bags in my freezer. They keep forever. Make lovely little gifts also. I dry basil chives and origanum regularly.


john's picture

Very belated thanks for the tip Jenny! We've tried it with some herbs, but we obviously need to do it more!

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Cream together in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer:
     1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
     1 stick butter, softened

Beat in: