How To Grow, Harvest, And Cook With Basil
Sweet Basil-Ocimum basilicum
Basil; There is a reason why everyone wants basil. First, why we love it; next, how to use it; then how to grow it. This is a delicious herb, globally popular with medicinal properties and cultural importance. It is said to symbolize both love and hate. It is a little plant with big responsibilities.
“A man taking basil from a woman will love her always”-Sir Thomas Moore
Basil-Its Flavor Profile
Expect Basil to add a taste that is sweet, pungent, and a bit spicy. Note a slight anise flavor with a hint of citrus.
Basil is one of the world’s most desired culinary herbs. The herb provides vitamins A, C, and K, manganese, calcium, and omega 3-fatty acids. It is native to tropical regions from Central Africa to Southeast Asia and traveled the world in the spice trade and is now enjoyed everywhere. Commercially, it is considered an ultra-niche and high-value crop. Given the popularity of fresh food, Basil’s market is expected to continue growing in future years.
Cooking With Basil
Preparing and Handling Basil In The Kitchen
- Cut basil dies quickly. When you cut some from your plant for your day’s cooking, put it immediately in a container of water. It looks like a bouquet in the kitchen and will stay fresh to use. If you forget it, the stems will grow roots and reward you for your carelessness!
- When to add basil to the dish. Add basil late; its sprightly flavor is elusive. Particularly in cooked dishes, add basil in the last 60 seconds of cooking so that your guests will enjoy it!
- Chiffonade- This is the best way to cut the basil so that the flavor is distributed throughout your dish; just remember this-stack, roll, slice- make a little stack of your basil leaves, roll them like a tiny cigar, slice the cigar with a sharp knife on an angle. Shake that into your dish.
- Crushed basil paste- crush the basil with coarse salt and garlic if needed. Use the side of a large knife to crush. Use this in your recipe; try it on grilled bread or in mashed potato.
- Take the dried basil and crush it in your hand. This will maximize the flavor. Dried spices are not immortal. Your dried spices should last about 2-3 years when stored and sealed in a cool, dry place. If the scent is weak, you can increase the quantity.
Marcella Hazan’s Pesto
I saw the late, great chef, Marcella Hazan, speak at a book fair in St Petersburg, Florida. I have her book “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” It includes the best pesto I ever ate, and I can make it from the garden any day and quickly, too. She was a fascinating character and did not suffer fools gladly!
I found this copy of her son Giuliano’s recipe on his cooking school website. It is exactly his mom’s recipe. Try it; I promise you will plant some basil and never buy a jar of pesto again! Wouldn’t you love a day or two at that school?
Why Do Pine Nuts Cost So Much?
Pesto is simple; basil, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil are the basics. Not difficult or expensive, except for the pine nuts. If this bothers you, try walnuts, it’s not the same but nice.
Here is why the price of pine nuts is so high. The pinecones grow on about 100 species of pine trees around the world. The climb to get them is about 100 feet! The trees begin to produce at about 25 to 50 years old, and they bloom once every two years. It gets worse; the season lasts only 20 days to two months. Then you wait about two weeks before you can thresh the nuts, and then you need to process them fast!
So keep them in the freezer and enjoy them; they are really special!
Simple Basil Salads
Basil added to a few fresh salad ingredients can brighten a light lunch. Think of tomato, basil, and red onion to start. What have you got in the garden or kitchen today? Add avocado, celery, cucumber, perhaps chilled green beans, or asparagus. Make a fresh vinaigrette and a loaf of bread. A great lunch!
Basil In Cocktails
Basil can add spark to a cocktail and make it refreshingly special. I like to make gimlets; we enjoy the bright flavor they can have. I make one with ginger simple syrup that is special. Here is one with basil. It’s not my recipe; I found it online. Try it. Gimlet with Basil.
Basil On Ice Cream
Top vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries, basil, and a little balsamic vinegar. Fast and tasty!
Fresh Basil On Pizza
Do you make your own pizza? Serve it with fresh basil leaves on top. It brightens the flavor.
Basil-Just What Is It?
Basil: Ocimium basilicum
Use: Culinary Herb,
Hardiness Zone: 10+, used as annual anywhere. You can grow it indoors for the winter. Here is how.
Soil and light: Grow basil in full sun or partial sun depending on your location. It likes fertile soil and about 6 hours of sunlight. In our South Florida garden, we space our potted herbs around a multi-trunked palm tree. This makes it convenient to move them in and out of our hot sun.
How To Grow Basil
Choosing The Right Plant
Here is a description of Sweet Basil, but most of the features are essential to any healthy plant. The basil plant we want is bushy, bright, and has dark green leaves with a shiny surface. Avoid plants with pale green or brown color on foliage or stems or with thin, leggy stems. There should be several plants (3-5) in a pot.
Space the plants 4-8″ apart in rows 18″ apart.
Plant basil in rich, moist soil with a pH of 5.1-8.5. Basil is an excellent container plant, Make a planter of mixed herbs or put the shiny green leaves in a container of flowers. Make sure to use high-quality, sterile potting soil. Here is how to identify the best mix, including the certifications available.
Water and Fertilizer-Is Your Basil Wilting?
Apply a timed-release fertilizer every 4-6 weeks. Basil should stay moist; note that container plants require more water and should not be allowed to dry out.
Basil requires about 11 1/2″ of water per week. If the plant is wilting, check the soil. If the soil is dry, add water. Basil will also wilt if the soil is wet. Soil should be steadily moist but never soggy.
How To Prune And Harvest Basil
Pruning is important to many plants. However, in the case of the Basil plant, it is one of the most critical elements of success. The most important fact to remember about pruning Basil is to do it regularly.
Once your new basil plant reaches about 6″ tall and has leaf sets on three or more nodes per stem, it is time to harvest your basil.
If you have waited too long, prune when you can. Pruning will keep the basil plant low and bushy with lots of large leaves. It is, after all, the leaf that we want. The more and the bigger, the better.
How To Cut Basil
Prune this way every two weeks.
- If you are pruning to take cuttings that will increase your crop, do this. Cut just below a node with the cut part long enough to have 2 or 3 leaf sets. Cutting below the node includes the spot with the most growth hormone. Remove the bottom leaves and stick the cutting in water. Keep the container of cuttings in a bright spot, and in about 20 days; there should be a good crop of white roots. Plant this in a small container of good-quality potting soil.
- This is a very good practice, especially if you make pesto that uses a good amount of leaves. Marcella Hazan’s Pesto Recipe. The late chef Marcella Hazan was the person most important in bringing Italian cooking to America. I have tried a lot of pesto recipes, and this one is the best I have.
- If cutting for the kitchen, cut on the stem just above the node. If you cut above the node and leave a bit of stem (the internode) cut that off. It will just rot if you leave it. Take your cuttings from evenly around the plant. Try to keep it in a mounded shape.
- Storage Basil keeps best if stored in water at room temperature. In the refrigerator, it can turn black.
Pests And Diseases of Basil
Basil is subject to fungal diseases. Avoid poor draining locations and splashing. Look for these issues:
Cercospora Leaf Spot: circular to irregular dark spots with light centers.
Downey Mildew: yellow leaves; the damage begins with the middle vein and spreads throughout the edges.
Fusarium Wilt-stunted plants with wilted leaves. Leaves drop off.
Maintain well-drained soil conditions and plant fungus-resistant varieties. Nufar basil (Ocimum basilicum “Nufar”) is the first fungus-resistant sweet basil.
There is no cure for fungus. Harvest the healthy leaves and have a good dinner.
Companion Plants For Basil
Basil has desirable features as a companion to other plants. It repels thrips and aphids, asparagus beetles, mites, mosquitoes, and tomato hornworms.
Asparagus and basil are excellent companions as the combination attracts ladybugs, and ladybugs control aphids and other pests. Plant basil also with borage, chamomile, oregano, garlic, chive, root vegetables, tomato, and peppers.
Plants To Avoid Growing Near Basil
Avoid planting Basil next to Rue or Sage, which will inhibit the growth of all three plants. Cucumbers contain a high percentage of water and therefore take on the flavor of aromatic neighbors such as Basil. Also, avoid proximity to garlic, leek, or onion.
What Kinds Of Basil To Grow
Basil comes in delicious varieties of flavors. Lemon basil has that mild and fresh citrus flavor and scent. Thai basil gives the cook that almost licorice-like taste and Genovese basil suits every Italian dish or salad. They are small plants, tuck in a few. You will enjoy them every day. You will be surprised at the innovative ways in which you will use them. Just knowing that is in the garden, ready to use, will give you spur-of-the-moment ideas.
Genovese (sweet) Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
The large dark leaves of the classic Italian basil are aromatic and spicy with a hint of clove; use it in salads, pasta, pesto, and even drinks. It is a tender plant; wait until after the danger of frost has passed before putting it out in the garden.
Greek Basil (Ocimium basilicum var. minimum)
This variety is very ornamental and has a rounded shape with tiny leaves. The flavor and fragrance are strong; use them in the same ways that you would use sweet basil. They are refreshing in a Greek salad with feta and olives, consider adding them to orzo also; the tiny leaf is a perfect size.
Lemon Basil (Ocimium basilicum var. citriodorum)
There is also Lime basil to try. Salads, fish, and chicken benefit from the foliage. They are a way to brighten drinks like iced tea, lemonade, and cocktails.
Thai Basil (Ocimium basilicum var. thyrsiflora)
This adds a bright freshness to stir fry, curry, and salads. The more you cook from the garden, the more ideas you will come up with. The plants themselves are attractive, with a combination of purple stems and green leaves.
Cinnamon Basil (Ocimium basilicum ‘cinnamon’)
With smaller leaves than sweet basil and contrasting purple stems, they are pretty in a salad. in the garden or even in a bouquet. You may see it sold as Mexican basil also.
Purple Basil (Ocimium basilicum var. purpurascens)
These are pretty in the garden; plant them comfortably after the last spring frost. The flavor is not sweet, and the clove taste is strong. They are very aromatic and make a nice infused oil.
Basil is easy to grow, does not take up much space, and is a favorite feature of cuisines around the globe. Try it in your garden and keep growing cuttings because you will keep finding more uses for this herb. This article is a compendium of culinary herbs with more ideas for your garden and kitchen.