Using Fresh Basil

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2011 • all rights reserved

Two tips for using fresh basil will have it tasting as good in your food as it smelled in the garden -- plus a simple way to store it!Lots of cruisers have a pot of basil growing in the cockpit; I often found it at farmer’s markets, on veggie trucks and occasionally growing on the counter at a small tienda (see how to store it for several weeks at the bottom of this article).  Living ashore, I love the aroma of fresh basil in the garden.  But somehow, when I used it in cooking, it just never tasted like I expected.

About two weeks ago, my brother and his wife came for a visit.  And one night, we were having tomatoes with basil . . .  and that’s when I learned the secret of using fresh basil.

Most recipes have you (1) add the basil early in the cooking process, when you add other herbs and spices and (2) tell you to chop the basil.   Both destroy the flavor.

The wonderful basil scent and flavor comes from the oils.  These evaporate quickly — even more so when exposed to heat.  And chopping basil tends to expose more of the oils to the air.

So the tricks are two-fold:

  • Add the basil to a dish just as you’re serving it — if it’s a hot dish, remove it from the fire before sprinkling the basil over the top, and don’t stir it in.  If the food is at room temperature or cold (such as a salad), it’s okay to quickly toss it with the other ingredients.
  • Gently tear the basil leaves off the stem and then into small pieces with your fingers as you’re sprinkling them on.  Don’t use a knife to chop and don’t tear them up ahead of time.  In fact, don’t even tear the leaves off the stems before you’re ready to use them.

I have to admit, LeeAnn’s version of tomatoes-with-basil was ten times better than anything that I’ve put on the table.  And now I’m using her tips to seriously improve my tossed salads and spaghetti sauce.  NOW the basil is every bit as good in my food as it smells in the garden!

For tossed salads, where I used to add the basil to the dressing that I made up ahead of time, I’m now making the dressing without the basil and adding it just as I toss the salad.  Lots more flavor!

Storing Fresh Basil

The easiest — and best — way to store fresh basil is right on the stem, as if it were cut flowers.  Cut a tiny bit off the bottom of each stem, and stick it in a glass of water (wedge the glass in or put it in a drink holder — or use one of those “unspillable” coffee mugs with the big nonskid base).  Change the water daily, and the basil will last one to two weeks, sometimes more.

If you’ve brought the basil home from a store or farmer’s market, it may look a bit wilted at first.  But after 12 hours or so in the water, it usually perks right up.

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  1. Sandra Parsons Hall on Facebook says:

    I am on my third attempt to grow basil onboard. It just does not seem to want to grow. We are usually in Florida or the Bahamas. Any tips???

  2. good to know! (I’m one of those with Basil in the Cockpit.) Fresh pesto is one of our favorite treats… works with almonds, too!

  3. Sandra Parsons Hall — Basil likes sun, but I’m guessing in Florida or Bahamas you’ve got plenty. And then a fair amount of water — not sopping wet, but if it’s hot out, it’ll start wilting . . . I find that in summer, I’m watering it every couple of days and yes, it usually wilts a bit which reminds me to pour water on it 🙂 The only other “trick” that I know is to keep cutting it — you definitely don’t want to let it flower, but it’s best if you keep it 6″ to 8″ tall, a foot at the absolute most. Sometimes it kills me to cut it when I know we won’t use it! At the same time, never cut all the leaves off — leave a least a couple and cut with sharp shears, don’t tear or pinch the leaves off the plant. Good luck . . . maybe Mili Cook has some other tips she can add!

  4. I concur… the heat is it’s worst enemy. I actually use pots that water from the bottom on the boat. Got mine at IKEA, but also available other places. Copying the Earth Box system… and they work really well. Not a lot of mess, and I only water a couple of times a week.

  5. And that fresh basil plant may just deter flies!

  6. That’s interesting — never heard it before. I think I like basil more and more — flies can be a real annoyance in certain places in the Sea of Cortez!

  7. Stephanie Hamilton says:

    I don’t know why I am always surprised to find such useful tips here….. haven’t been a cruiser for 6 years but still find something interesting and handy here every time I visit! Thanks, Carolyn….and the rest of you!

  8. We grow basil along with a few other herbs on board, but i’m not having much success with the basil. It did great for a while, lovely big leaves on a bushy plant, but I can’t seem to get it back to that condition. Reading the comments here has given me a few ideas where I went wrong, we’ve let one of the plants flower, but I did pinch the flowers off as they formed, we haven’t clipped the basil as much as we should and from the sounds of it when I have been harvesting it I’ve been doing it wrong! Will try again knowing what I know now and see how we go.

  9. Great advice! And if you have room in your fridge an herb keeper will extend the life of your fresh herbs many times over. This is the one I use. I like this one because of the slim design: but I like the pull up concept of this one:

  10. It doesn’t like saltwater, so we put our pot inside anytime we think it might get rough enough to splash on the back deck, where it’s usually kept. The shower stall is a good spot.

  11. Love fresh herbs

  12. I buy potted basil and proceed to clear cut it as needed… Works great except for the time I watered it with the salt water tap. Oops.

  13. I buy potted basil and proceed to clear cut it as needed… Works great except for the time I watered it with the salt water tap. Oops.

  14. Yep – we have basil, mint, tyme and dill.

  15. We have mint, for making mojitos of course.

  16. We have mint, for making mojitos of course.

  17. Had basil aboard during the summer. Kept it inside the cabin with strong, indirect light. On the TX Gulf Coast the sun intensity was too great to leave it in the cockpit.

  18. I had heard that you shouldn’t chop fresh herbs but that it is fine to CUT them. So, if i want finely-chopped basil, I “chop” it with kitchen shears. It seems to preserve the flavor pretty well and allows me to cut it finer than I can tear it. Anyone else use this technique?

  19. Many grocery stores now sell herbs as small plants. On board, we use old plastic wine glasses (with short stems). All you do is take the plant out of the plastic package, stick it in the glass, top off with water. Basil will last 6 to 8 weeks or more as long as it is kept watered and the flowers are pinched off. Other herbs do just as well (except for sage… that struggles a bit). Most of these plants are organic as well!

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