5 Ways to Preserve Fresh Basil

Jim Robinson

By Jim Robinson

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Whether you freeze it, infuse it, dry it, or turn it into delicious pesto, there are many great ways to preserve fresh basil so you can enjoy it all winter long. Here are five of my favorite methods.

Frozen basil leaves (basilius) formed into cubes with fresh basil on a table with some in a plastic sandwich bag.
Qwart/Bigstock

I’ve always loved fresh basil in the summer. Its wonderful aroma and distinctive herbal flavor instantly elevate any dish. There’s also something special about harvesting it straight from the garden, where it’s been growing under the sun, nurtured by the living soil I’ve been building up and amending over the years.

One of the best parts of having an abundance of basil is that it provides an opportunity to experiment with different ways of preserving it so its flavor can be enjoyed well into the colder months. Over the years, I’ve picked up various techniques from fellow gardeners, friends, and the internet. Each method has its benefits and uses. Whether you prefer to keep it simple by freezing whole leaves or get creative with infused oils and pestos, there’s more than one way to capture and save that summer magic.

Here, I’ll show you five easy ways to preserve fresh basil for winter and beyond.

Frozen basil leaves (basilius) in an ice cube tray with fresh basil on a table.
Qwart/Bigstock

1. Puree and Freeze in Ice Cube Trays

One of the fastest and easiest ways to preserve basil is to puree it with water or oil and freeze it in ice cube trays. These frozen cubes can then be thawed and used as needed in a variety of recipes.

Whether to use oil or water depends on how you want to use the basil once it’s thawed. 

If you typically add basil as a seasoning to sauces, stir-fried veggies, or similar dishes, freezing basil in oil is the best choice. If you do this, you can simply toss the cube into a hot pan and cook it as you would fresh basil. Plus, freezing herbs in oil better preserves basil’s color and flavor.

On the other hand, if you just want the basil without added oil or fat, then using water is the better choice. With this method, you can even strain out the water once it’s thawed and only add the basil to the dish. This is a great option for making dressings, rubs, and garnishes. 

How to Make Basil Ice Cubes

  1. Prepare your fresh basil by removing any woody stems, then washing and drying the leaves.
  2. Take small groups of leaves (about 4-5 at a time) and rough chop them with a knife by hand. Alternatively, you can place the leaves in a food processor and pulse until uniformly chopped, but be careful not to turn it into a paste.
  3. Lightly pack the chopped basil into the slots of an ice cube tray. Leave just a few millimeters at the top of each slot.
  4. Carefully add water or oil to each slot until the basil is completely covered. You may have to gently push down the leaves.
  5. Freeze the cubes for at least three hours, then transfer to a freezer-safe, airtight container or bag and return them to the freezer.

Frozen basil preserved this way will last 3 to 6 months (or longer in a deep freezer).

Thaw your basil cubes in the fridge as needed or place frozen cubes directly in a hot pan, depending on how you plan to use them.

Alternatively, you can fill your basil-filled ice cube tray with melted butter and a dash of salt to create a tasty, homemade herb butter.

Frozen leaves of purple basil with fresh basil on a wooden table.
Qwart/Bigstock

2. Freeze the Whole Leaves

If you prefer your basil leaves intact, then the best way to preserve them is to freeze the leaves whole.

This method is great for recipes that call for whole basil leaves. Though, since the texture changes with freezing, they aren’t the best option for garnishes. 

If you don’t know how you will use your basil, I recommend this method for preserving it. That’s because you can easily chop, puree, or do whatever else you need once the whole basil leaves are thawed.

How to Freeze Whole Basil Leaves

  1. Start by washing your basil leaves.
  2. Boil water in a pot and prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.
  3. Drop the leaves into the boiling water for 15 seconds, then transfer directly to the ice bath.
  4. Dry thoroughly.
  5. Spread the leaves out on a cookie sheet. Alternatively, you can roll the blanched leaves into small bundles equal to roughly one serving each and place those on the cookie sheet. Use parchment paper to separate the layers if you’re working with a lot of basil.
  6. Place the sheet in the freezer and freeze for at least two hours.
  7. Transfer to a freezer-safe, airtight container and return them to the freezer.

Freezing basil this way will preserve it for about 3 months.

If you don’t mind your basil turning a little brown, you can always skip the blanching steps and move straight from cleaning to drying the leaves and laying them out on the cookie sheet. Unblanched basil won’t look as good once it’s frozen, but it still tastes great.

Bottles of herb-infused olive oil on wooden background.
Yastremska/Bigstock

3. Infuse In Oil

Infusing oil with basil is an age-old method of preserving it. But there are some risks to this method, which is why it’s important to do it properly.

The key to neutralizing the potentially deadly bacteria on basil and other herbs is to acidify them before adding them to your oil. We’ll show you how to do that in the steps below.

Olive oil infused with basil has a long list of uses in the kitchen. You can make delicious oil dips for bread, add it to recipes in place of plain olive oil, drizzle it in Italian soups, add it to marinades and dressings, and so much more.

How to Make Basil-Infused Olive Oil

  1. Create a 3% citric acid bath by adding 1 ¾ tsp citric acid crystals to 2 cups of water. 
  2. Add 1.7 ounces of basil (whole leaves still attached to the stems) to the bath and allow it to sit for 24 hours. You’ll likely need to add a weight (a small heavy bowl works well) on top of the basil to keep it submerged.
  3. After 24 hours, remove the basil, pat it dry with paper towels, then drop it into a bottle of olive oil. The less oil you use, the stronger the flavor will be, just make sure the basil is entirely covered in oil.
  4. Leave the oil in a cool dark place to infuse for 5 to 10 days. Taste daily after 5 days and remove the basil once you’ve achieved the desired flavor.

Oil infused with acidified herbs is safe to store at room temperature. However, the flavor is best preserved by putting the oil in the refrigerator or freezing it.

You can learn more about how to safely infuse oil with garlic and herbs, here (PDF).

Dried basil leaves isolated on white background.
Ministreli/Bigstock

4. Dry or Dehydrate It

Another great option for preserving basil is to dehydrate or dry it. Both methods produce a dried-spice sort of product that can be used in a variety of recipes or to make dressings, marinades, and sauces.

How to Air Dry Basil

  1. Start by washing and drying your basil, leaving the leaves attached to the stems. 
  2. Hang the sprigs upside down in a dry, warm, well-ventilated room. Garages often work well for this. If needed, use a fan set to low to increase ventilation.
  3. The basil will take about 1 to 3 weeks to dry completely. It’s ready once the leaves readily crumble and break cleanly apart when you squeeze them in your hand.

How to Dehydrate Basil

  1. Wash your basil leaves and dry them well.
  2. Place in a single layer on a dehydrator tray or cookie sheet.
  3. Set your dehydrator to 95 degrees and run for 6 to 18 hours, or until the leaves are crisp and break apart with ease. Alternatively, you can set your oven to the lowest setting and heat for about 1.5 to 4 hours. Be sure to check frequently to keep them from burning.

Store your dried basil in glass jars or sealed in bags and keep them in a dry, dark place. 

Well-dried herbs can stay good in an airtight container for up to three years.

Homemade Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce in a Glass Bottle on Wooden Table.
lovelypeace/Bigstock

5. Freeze It as Pesto

If your main use for homegrown basil is to turn it into pesto, then the best way to preserve it is to start that process early and freeze it to use whenever the mood strikes.

How to Make and Freeze Pesto

  1. Start by making your favorite pesto recipe as you normally would.
  2. For small portions, spoon the pesto into an ice cube tray. For larger portions, add the desired amount to mason jars with fitted lids. Either way, top with a little olive oil and place in the freezer.
  3. Transfer the cubes to an airtight container and place them back in the freezer. Remove however many cubes you need and thaw when needed. For large portions, place the mason jar in the fridge and thaw. Then heat and enjoy.

Frozen pesto will last 3 to 6 months in the freezer.

Is It Safe to Store Fresh Basil in Olive Oil at Room Temperature?

Many fresh herbs and other types of produce we consume contain Clostridium botulinum bacteria. This type of microbe is relatively harmless in most cases. But when it’s allowed to flourish, it produces toxins that cause botulism, a rare but serious illness.

Unlike many types of bacteria, Clostridium botulinum thrives in oxygen-free environments. When your fresh basil has this bacteria and it’s placed in olive oil and left at room temperature, it creates an anaerobic environment in which the bacteria quickly multiply and produce deadly toxins. 

The only effective way to kill this bacteria on herbs and prevent this process is to acidify the herbs. Once acidified, olive oil infused with herbs is safe to keep at room temperature.

If you don’t have the means to acidify your basil, you can still store it in olive oil. However, this oil must be stored in the fridge and should be tossed out after three weeks. 

Another option is to dry your basil completely first then add it to the oil to infuse. Dry herb-infused oil is safe to store at room temperature because there isn’t enough moisture for bacteria to grow.

My Favorite Basil Recipes

Once you’ve preserved your basil, you’ll need some great recipes to use it in. Here are a few of my favorite basil-licious recipes.

Frozen basil leaves (basilius) formed into cubes with fresh basil on a table with some in a plastic sandwich bag.
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How to Freeze Fresh Basil

Pureeing and freezing fresh basil is my favorite way to preserve it. Just puree it with water or oil and freeze it in ice cube trays. These frozen cubes can then be thawed and used as needed in a variety of recipes
Prep Time15 minutes
Total Time15 minutes
Course: Component

Ingredients

  • fresh basil
  • water or olive oil

Instructions

  • Prepare your fresh basil by removing any woody stems, then washing and drying the leaves.
  • Take small groups of leaves (about 4-5 at a time) and rough chop them with a knife by hand. Alternatively, you can place the leaves in a food processor and pulse until uniformly chopped, but be careful not to turn it into a paste.
  • Lightly pack the chopped basil into the slots of an ice cube tray. Leave just a few millimeters at the top of each slot.
  • Carefully add water or oil to each slot until the basil is completely covered. You may have to gently push down the leaves.
  • Freeze the cubes for at least three hours, then transfer to a freezer-safe, airtight container or bag and return them to the freezer.

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