Harvesting Basil

A Quick Guide to Harvesting Basil

            Fresh herbs are a treasure in the kitchen, so learning the ins and outs of harvesting basil you have carefully grown in your herb garden is essential.

            Basil is an herb with not only delicious flavor but with medicinal properties as well.  The green, leafy herb had its beginnings in the Middle East and Asia, where it was considered to be the “king” of herbs.  The name basil comes from a Greek word which means king; named so due to the location where the plant was found, which was also where the Holy Cross was found by St. Constantine.

            Harvesting basil is an important function to the longevity of the plant, and can be thought of as simply pruning the plant.  While many plants in the vegetable family are cultivated and carefully maintained up to a final culmination point when the vegetable is harvested, basil is continually gathered.  This promotes additional growth of the leaves, which is the bounty of the plant.

            It is these leaves, both fragrant and delicious, that the culinary world and the medicinal world alike covet.  A potent essential oil is found in the fresh leaves of the basil plant which is a healthy way to improve one’s immune system.  The antibacterial nature of the leaves is so powerful that applying freshly cut basil leaves to wounds can help to eliminate bacterial growth and the resulting infections.  Taken internally, the aromatic herb provides a valuable tool in fighting viral infections, such as the flu, colds, and viruses related to the herpes family.  Basil oil is also considered to have high antioxidant powers useful in the prevention of some cancers, aging of human cells and more.  In all of these uses, fresh basil leaves have the optimal benefit.

            The same is true in culinary uses of basil.  Leaves that are picked within a day or two of their usage offer the most flavor and intensity than those which are dried.  The volatile oils lose their potency and flavor when the herb is dried, although the dried form is widely used in many home kitchens.  

            To capitalize on the fresh nature of herbs such as basil, many cooks prefer to grow them in their own herb gardens.  Because herbs are so easy to grow and use, they can be grown either in outside plots or in small pots that are kept on the kitchen windowsill for easy access.  Several types of basil are popular, including sweet basil, lemon basil, purple basil and blue basil.  Each has their own unique scents and flavors.  The plants typically will grow to maturity, reaching around 12” in height.  Flowers will begin to appear at the stem tips, and should be discouraged by pinching them off.  This preserves flavor in the herb and stimulates the plant to produce more leaves.

            Harvesting basil should be done on a continuous basis to promote a bushier, leafier plant.  Every three to four weeks, simply pinch the stem just above the second set of leaves.  For use within the next day or so, the stems can be placed in a glass of water and covered with plastic wrap.  If you are unable to use the fresh leaves immediately, freezing the leaves is the next best option.  The leaves can be chopped, placed in ice cube tray compartments which are then covered with water and frozen.  The frozen basil cubes can then be popped out of the tray, placed in a plastic freezer bag and kept for up to a year.  Another version of frozen basil involves adding oil to the fresh leaves, lightly whirling them in a blender before pouring the mixture into the ice cube tray compartments to freeze.

            Foods can have an extra flavorful boost when fresh herbs are added.  Harvesting basil on a regular basis will provide enough of the delicious and healthy herb to keep your food tasty all year long.