Saturday, October 17, 2015

The best way to store home-grown basil

The weather report is warning of an early freeze tonight, so Brian and I just hastened out to the garden to harvest all our tender crops. Two of our butternut squash had unfortunately split open in last week's heavy rains, so they'll need to be cooked up right away and turned into puree for this year's Thanksgiving pie. However, we got a few smaller squash that were intact, along with numerous chili peppers and frying peppers, and a big whopping bucketful of basil.

By getting the basil in promptly, we were able to get it into a bucket of water for immediate storage, thus avoiding a repeat of the marathon basil-processing session we went through two years ago. At that time, we foolishly stripped all the leaves off the plants, not realizing what a massive job it would be to process them all in one night and how inadequate our tiny Magic Bullet Blender—and our patience—would be to the task. We ended up using four different methods to store it all, and even now, two years later, we haven't used all of it up.

This year's hasty basil harvest struck me as a good opportunity to review the four basil-storage methods that we used, discuss how well each one worked, and announce the winners that we're planning to use again for this year's massive crop. Here's the rundown:

Method #1: Freezing Whole Leaves
How It's Done: First, you blanch the leaves by dipping them first into boiling water and then into ice water. This is easiest to do when the leaves are still on the stem, but if you've made the mistake of removing them, you can do it with a little sieve. Then spread the leaves out into a nearly flat layer in a freezer bag, seal it up, and lay it flat in the freezer.
To Use: Pull out the bag and break off a clump of leaves from the mass.
Results: Poor. The blanched basil leaves were wilted and hard to work with, plus the flat bag was awkward to store in the freezer.
Verdict: Not worth doing again.

Method #2: Salting
How It's Done: Thickly cover the bottom of a large crock or jar with salt—about 1 cm or half an inch. Place a layer of basil leaves atop the salt, sprinkle more salt on top, and continue alternating layers of basil and salt until the jar is full. After every 10 layers or so, press down gently to compact the layers of leaves. Fill to within 5 cm or 2 inches from the top, then add another heavy layer of salt to compact everything down. Shake the crock gently to make sure all the crevices are filled with salt. Cover the crock and store in a cool, dry place.
To Use: Remove the leaves, shake off the salt, and cook with them just like fresh basil. Shake the jar to restore the salt layer before putting it away.
Results: Not great. The basil leaves get very dry, and even with the excess salt removed, they have a strong salty flavor. You can still use them in a dish that's meant to be salty, but you have to dial the salt in the dish way down or leave it out entirely. But on the plus side, the basil we stored this way seems to have held up remarkably well. We still have some of it left, and after two years in storage, the basil doesn't really look worse than it did after the first month or two. It's dry and greyish, but it definitely hasn't gone bad.
Verdict: Not really worth it. Basil stored this way is hard to work with and only suitable for certain recipes—which is why we still have some left two years later.

Method #3: Oil-Packing
How It's Done: Pack basil leaves into a container (we used a jar), sprinkling each layer of leaves with salt to cover. Then pour in enough oil to cover the leaves completely. Store in the refrigerator.
To Use: Remove the leaves and use them in any recipe that also calls for oil. The basil-infused oil can also be used for cooking or in salad dressing.
Results: Pretty good. Preserved this way, the basil leaves were easy to work with, and since most of the recipes we make with basil also include oil (such as pesto and pasta à la Caprese), we had no trouble using them up. Stored in the fridge, they lasted for several months. The only real problems with this method were that (1) it uses quite a lot of oil, which isn't cheap, and (2) a lot of that oil stays on the leaves, so you have to adjust the amount of oil in your recipe to compensate.
Verdict: We will probably use this method again, but we will try to fine-tune it a bit. Brian had the idea that if the leaves were lightly coated with oil before being packed into the jar, they should be able to pack down more tightly, and it would take less oil to cover them fully. That's the theory, anyway. We'll see how it works.

Method #4: Freezer Cubes
How It's Done: Grind basil leaves in a food processor with just enough oil to lubricate them and turn them into a slurry. Pour this slurry out into the slots of an empty ice-cube tray and freeze. Pop the basil cubes out of the tray and store them in the freezer in a zip-top bag.
To Use: Substitute 1 basil cube for 1 tablespoon of fresh basil in sauces, soups, and other dishes that call for basil to be finely chopped.
Results: Very good. The individual basil cubes are very easy to store and very easy to use; in fact, for making pesto, they even save you a step, since the basil is already ground up and all you have to do is stir in the other ingredients. Their only drawback is that they won't work in recipes that specifically require basil leaves to be whole. However, for most dishes, chopped basil is fine. These can even be used in our beloved pasta à la Caprese, though they're not really ideal for the purpose. The biggest drawback of this method is that it takes so long to process and freeze all the basil, which is why it's best to do it in several batches.
Verdict: Our favorite method. We plan to use it to store the bulk of this year's basil, but we will also store a jar using the oil-pack method, which is somewhat better for the pasta.

And there you have it: the best way to store your home-grown basil. I hope this comes in handy for anyone else out there who just had to harvest a whole bunch of it in a hurry.
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