By Susan Liechty
Hands down, the king of the summer garden is basil, Ocimum basilicum. It’s a staple in Italian cuisine and other cultures around the world. Most of us can’t wait until the basil is big enough to begin picking and creating recipes.
Basil is a member of the mint family with flavors that have a spicy “minty” overtone. It’s an easy herb to grow either from seed or a plant. The most popular is the sweet basil, “Genovese’ sometimes called Italian, or large leaf. It’s my favorite for making pestos, sauces and the ultimate dish of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Basil comes in varieties that have purple leaves, ‘Purple Ruffles’ or ‘Opal’ and reddish color “Red Rubin’. Mild flavored basils are Lime, Lemon, or Cinnamon. A few varieties have a spicy taste, such as, ‘Holy’, ‘Thai’ and ‘Siam Queen.’
Most varieties grow to about 15 inches tall, but the Genovese basil can get 4 feet tall. Some varieties like ‘Globe’ or ‘Greek Mini’ stay very small and ‘Columnar’ is just that, a narrow column of basil. Don’t give into the temptation to fertilize basil too much. You will be rewarded with large leaves but less flavor. Basil needs about 6-8 hours of sun to grow to its full potential.
My best advice for basils is “to use or lose it.” The leaves need to be pinched off or clipped as the plant grows. Once you begin to pinch back the leaves the bush will branch out and be a lovely bushy herb in your garden. When the basil begins to go to seed, it can change the flavor causing it to be a little bitter.
Basil is used in about every type of food preparation over the summer when it is at its best. Basil does not dry well, it turns a brownish color once it starts to dry out. Some folks have had success with hanging it upside down to dry, but I sure have not. An easy way to preserve basil is to chop it up and place in water, pour into ice cube trays and freeze. You can use the cubes in soups, stews, and sauces throughout the winter by tossing in one or two.
Pesto is the all time favorite use of fresh garden basil. Since it takes quite a bit of basil to make a batch, take advantage of the summer windfall. The classic Italian pesto is made with ‘Genovese’ or another large leaf variety such as ‘Mammoth’ or ‘Valentino’. These varieties do have large leaves but my personal opinion is the flavor suffers a bit, and I still make most of my pesto out of ‘Genovese’. Using basil in pesto and sauces is the classic use in the kitchen but don’t stop there. Use in mayonnaise for your BLT, on pasta, chicken salad or step out of the box and try basil, chocolate chip ice cream.
Remember basil is a warm weather plant. If the temperatures fall below 60 degrees, the plant does not grow well, and with several nights in the 50’s the plant will suffer significantly. If basil feels the temperature getting close to 32 it will begin its slow death. At 32 degrees it will be gone.
How to manage an abundance of basil:
1. Cut stems and put in a vase of water on your kitchen counter and it will last about a week.
2. Cut leaves off stems and layer between paper towels and place in refrigerator.
3. Pesto - make your favorite recipe of pesto and freeze in small amounts or in ice cube trays. Remove from the trays after it is frozen and package into vacuum sealed bags for pesto all winter long. Note: I don’t add the cheese or nuts when I make frozen pesto. I like it added fresh when I actually use it throughout the winter months, it gives a fresher taste.
4. Basil oil - 2 cups of basil leaves, chopped and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Process in a food processor until smooth. Freeze in small containers or ice cube trays (follow procedure above), if you want to use the oil immediately, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Use the oil in stews, soups, sauces and to top vegetables or pasta.
5. Basil vinegar - fill a mason jar with basil leaves. Bruise them with a wooden spoon to release the oils. Fill the jar with white wine vinegar or cider vinegar, cover the basil, and let sit for 2 weeks then strain out the basil leaves. Pour into a decorative bottle.
Note: the purple or red basils will turn the vinegars a beautiful color of lavender.
Susan Liechty is a Delaware County OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.