green leaf plants - best way to keep basil fresh

What is the Best Way to Keep Basil Fresh?

Basil, whether the Italian variety or its sweet Thai version, has long been a favorite ingredient in many regional cuisines. It is very versatile and can be used in all sorts of dishes.

Whether you’re looking for an added kick or a much-needed dose of complexity and exoticism, basil has your back. If you’re looking to capture a traditional Mediterranean flavor, you can readily lean on basil’s culinary effects.

With that said, making sure that you have a constant supply of basil is easier said than done. A lot of gardeners throughout the United States can start out basil plants easy enough. They can plant basil indoors.

At first, things look awesome. The plant takes hold and it grows easily. Before they know it, they have a lot more leaves than they know what to do with.

So far so good, right? Well, this is where the problem begins. A lot of indoor gardeners are just simply too busy that they overlook the fact that a lot of their basil have started to sprout buds. These are flower buds that, if left unattended, will become flowers.

a row of planters filled with dirt and sprouts

What’s the big deal? All plants develop buds that sprout into flowers. The flowers are needed to produce seeds. Why is this a cause for concern?

Well, most basil varieties change dramatically the moment they bolt or go into the process of developing seeds. Flowering, of course, is the beginning of the bolting process.

If you’re too busy to constantly prune and take out the buds from your basil plant, don’t be surprised if the next crop of basil leaves you cut from your plant aren’t as fragrant or aromatic as before. The reason for this is the fact that your plant has matured.

When basil bolts, it becomes more fibrous. There’s less energy and nutrients going to the leaves and they tend to get smaller and less fragrant and aromatic. In particularly bad situations, the leaves on your basil plants don’t smell like basil at all.

This shocks a lot of gardeners because when they started out their plant and they tear off a few leaves here and there, it gives off a really strong fragrant basil smell. Not anymore. It’s as if the plant has changed dramatically, and now it’s more of a shrub. It might as well be an entirely new plant, and for all intents and purposes, it really is.

If you’re wondering why this is happening, it’s not complicated.  Basil is an annual plant.  That means it has a short life cycle. If it was in the wild, it would want to propagate its own species before it bites the dust.  When it starts to flower, most of the energies of the plant would now concentrated on going to seed.  Whereas before the focus was on growth and leaf production. 

This shift will reduce the quality of the leaves drastically. That’s why you have to fool it by nipping its flowers in the bud. That way, it would continue producing those wonderfully aromatic and tasty leaves.

So, to ensure that you keep getting fresh basil with all its fragrant power and aromatic appeal, you have to do two things. First, keep your basil plant pruned. You have to monitor your plant closely.

Keep in mind that basil is highly tolerant of pruning, which promotes the production of new leaves and growth. Pruning is necessary every two weeks because the plant can get large and unwieldy. The best time to harvest the leaves is early in the morning when they’re at their at peak condition.

You can’t let it bolt. You can’t let it develop buds. Either of these situations is going to be bad for the quality of the leaves that you’re getting. So, you’re going to have to either reduce the number of basil plants you have, or you have to make it a point to constantly monitor them for any sign of budding or bolting.

This is non-negotiable. You have to start from this stage. Anything past this point is no good. You’re going to be a day late and a buck short.

Second, when you harvest basil leaves, trim their stems and quickly put them in a jar of cold water. Treat the freshly harvested leaves of your basil plant like you would freshly cut flowers. Make sure to cover the jar or the container to keep the basil leaves fresh in the liquid until you’re ready to use them in a few hours.

If you’re going to be “packing” your leaves, it’s a good idea to put them in ice cold water and then drain the liquid and put them in an airtight container. This is crucial because you don’t want the leaves to oxidize by getting into contact with oxygen in the air. This would go a long way in ensuring the leaves stay fresh.

Another method is to wrap the basil in paper towels and placing them on a zip-lock plastic bag.  You can put them in the crisper drawer of your fridge. It will protect the leaves from moisture and preserve the aroma and taste.

How Do You Keep Your Basil Leaves from Turning Brown or Dark?

Another hassle to managing basil involves coloration. If you’re not careful, your basil can easily turn dark brown in no time.

Use the tips above to keep them green, and drain the water, and then seal the leaves in an airtight container and store in the fridge. If you do this correctly, you won’t see any discoloration, nor would the strong and aromatic basil scent and flavor change.

The problem with exposing basil leaves to the air for a long time is that they not only get dark, but their taste becomes “grassy”. You don’t get that nice aromatic kick that fresh basil produces. There’s a hint of that, but a lot of it is replaced by a somewhat grassy taste. Depending on how long you leave it out, the texture can also be affected.