This is what my basil plants and my scissors have taught me about harvesting my basil for all-year use! I know many gardeners and cooks, both casual and ambitious, and I never met one who did not want to tuck in a little basil plant somewhere. We do it for the pesto, the bruschetta, or the salad and pizza, and sometimes just for the pretty green plant with the lovely scent. But we all want the basil and never want to hurt the plants while we harvest them. So here is the answer: sharpen your scissors and prepare for many fresh meals.
Harvest Basil Over Again
Here is how to harvest basil and keep the plants healthy and ready to be used again and again all season long. My basil plants are mature and healthy in my South Florida Zone 10 garden. We eat from them every day. If your garden is north of mine (and most of North America is north of my garden), your basil is a younger plant, and you ask yourself, “When can I start to harvest it for my kitchen?”
We enjoy the basil plants in the garden every day, and here are a few simple rules to follow to keep using basil in cooking every day.
For more information on types of basil and how to grow it with a few recipes, please read:
When to Start Harvesting Basil
When your young basil plant reaches a height of six to eight inches, it is ready to begin harvest. In fact, basil responds best to regular harvesting, which keeps the plant bushy and robust. You can pinch individual leaves at the point where they join their soft and juicy stems or cut pieces with several leaves. See my little chart below showing just where to cut for the best results.
Can I Cut Too Much and Damage My Plant?
Yes, this can happen; the plant will be damaged and perhaps die. However, it is a mistake easy to avoid. Take a look at your plant, and do not cut off more than one-third of its mass. This amount will grow back in two to three weeks, and you can harvest some more for other meals!
Continue to take regular trimmings as the plant grows throughout the season. If you do not need the basil cuttings, you can root them easily in a jar of water to make more basil plants. Basil is a herb you will use often, and we like to have several plants.
How To Cut Your Basil
The tasty leaves of the basil plant are joined to individual stems and the main stems by joints we call nodes. The node, a slightly enlarged spot, is where the greatest amount of growth hormone is located. Cutting just above this point increases regrowth.
For more information on pruning and harvesting your herbs, you might like this. “How to Prune and Harvest your Culinary Herbs.”
What Cutting Tools Do I Need?
Basil is a soft-stemmed, herbaceous plant. Any herbaceous plant, if perennial, will die back to the ground, but the root will remain alive, and the plant will regrow the next year. Basil is treated as an annual plant in most climates.
Basil, one of the most popular herbs throughout the world, is native to Asia and grows wild in tropical and subtropical climates. In our Central Florida garden, basil lasted for several years. In our humid South Florida garden, if it survives our summers, it will also do well.
You can cut herbs with a pair of small micro pruners or scissors. The important task is to disinfect the blades between uses. Use any disinfectant; we use one part bleach to nine parts water.
When To Harvest Basil And Other Herbs
Harvest herbs while you are cooking or harvest early in the morning, just after the dew dries on them. Harvest basil and other herbs throughout their lives on a regular basis as you need them. As the plants mature, they form buds and blossoms. The appearance of buds is a sign that the plant is preparing to form seeds and die. To delay this, remove the buds as they form, and the plant will continue to produce its flavorful leaves. You will also notice that the flavor changes and becomes more bitter after the flowers appear. For the best flavor in the kitchen, do not permit the buds to form. Just cut them off.
To produce seeds for future plants, you simply allow the blooming process to go on.
How To Store Your Fresh Basil
To use basil on the same day or over several days, trim off any leaves that will be under water and cut the stems at an angle, just like a bouquet. Then you can stand the washed stems upright in a glass of water on your counter. I find it best to keep them on the counter at room temperature. You can refrigerate them, but they can blacken.
You can freeze your fresh basil by tearing it into small pieces and freezing it in ice cube trays covered with a bit of olive oil. The olive oil should reduce the problem of the leaves’ darkening.
Basil is a herb best used fresh, and as it can be grown in containers near the kitchen and indoors in a sunny window, we do not dry it. You can, however, do so if you have extra.
To grow herbs in a container garden or indoors over the winter, you can use these ideas.
What To Make With Basil
Quick Everyday Uses
- Sprinkle the fresh leaves on hot pizza for a fresh addition
- Use the leaves, whole or sliced, on pasta dishes
- Soup and sauces
- Use its flavor to brighten salads
- Basil is a popular substitute for cilantro in dishes like guacamole
- Make basil simple syrup and add to bourbon; reduce and use on ice cream
- In This post you will find the best (and simplest) pesto recipe I know.
Handling Basil In Cooking
Here are a few things I have learned in cooking classes and in everyday practice.
- When you dry herbs, you concentrate on the flavor. (That’s why those little jars last so long.) You will need more fresh herbs to achieve the same flavor. Start with a little and add more until you create the flavor you like.
- When cooking a hot dish, add the dried version of any herb early in the process to allow them to soak up liquids. Fresh herbs are delicate; add them at the very end.
- When cutting basil into small pieces, teach yourself to make a chiffonade. Did you ever watch a cigar maker? Roll the leaf the long way into a little cigar. Then take a sharp knife and cut along the roll side to side on a slight diagonal. You will create pretty, delicate little strips of shiny green.
- For herbaceous herbs like basil, do not overlook the stems. They are a great source of flavor in soups and sauces. Cut them into tiny bits and add them to rice dishes. Pretty and tasty.
My Pesto Today
The basil I am cutting today will make pesto, the simplest of delicious sauces. We will enjoy it on pasta, but also soup, salmon, sandwiches, and even better ideas will come to us.
How Is Basil Like Other Culinary Herbs
There are many culinary herbs, all flavorful and useful. Grow and use those that most suit your cooking and the flavors you enjoy.
Don’t overlook the wide range of food items you can make from your herbs. Use them in soup, sauce, salad, desserts, roasts, and in marinades. Add them to butter to make a compound butter for your meals, vinegar, and baked goods.
Herbs come in many varieties like other plants. Some will be annual, biannual, or perennial, and the plants can be herbaceous or woody in nature. For more useful ideas, try my “How to Grow Your Own Favorite Herbs For Dinner.’
Varieties of Basil
My preference, and the most popular variety, is Genovese, also called sweet Basil-Ocimum basilicum. This one is dark-leaved with a scent both aromatic and slightly spicy with a hint of clove. It is the preferred version for Italian dishes and salads. Other varieties include these:
- Greek Basil-Ocimum basilicum var. minimum. Its stronger flavor and tiny leaves are perfect with feta and olives.
- Lemon Basil-Ocimum basilicum var. citriodorum. There is also lime basil; try them with fish or simple syrup for drinks.
- Thai Basil-Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora, you will find this a bright addition to curry and stir fry.
- Cinnamon Basil-Ocimum basilicum‘cinnamon.’ This one has small leaves and purple stems; try it out in a salad and even in a bouquet.
Summary For Basil Lovers
Pick herbs that suit the way you cook, and that suit your growing conditions. Some grow better from seeds, and others from small plants.
When you discover the herbs that you will use the most, the best advice I can think of is to make them convenient for your kitchen workspace! Keep a container of basil and other favorites near the kitchen door. You can grow them on a kitchen counter too, and keep your cut herbs in a jar ready to use.
You will find that with them in reach, you will think of your best ideas every day.
“herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks”-Charlemagne
For somebody more current than Charlemagne, see this data sheet on basil from the Missouri Botanical Garden.