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How to Dry Fresh Basil

A photo of fresh basil and dried basil.

If you have your own herb garden (indoor or outdoor) or a community garden, preserving the fruits of your labor can be the most important step in the gardening process. After all, if you don’t correctly preserve your fresh herbs, they may go to waste or become unmanageable. 

No one wants to eat fresh basil on everything for a week to avoid missing out on the abundant harvest. Thankfully, there are some tried and true methods for drying fresh basil that will allow you to relish basil at your own pace without it rotting before you get the chance to finish your supply.

Drying fresh basil might seem like a daunting process, but it is fairly simple. Depending on the method you use, you may only need to devote a few minutes of work to dry the basil.

Some methods basically let the basil dry itself, while others might require a few extra steps. When you can pull out your container of home-grown fresh basil all year round, though, the effort will be worth it. You’ll never buy dried basil again–or let good fresh herbs expire a few days after pulling them from your garden.

How to dry fresh basil?

Freshly harvested basil leaves in bowl on table.

When drying fresh basil, the first step is picking the basil from your garden. As a rule of (green) thumb, wait to harvest basil leaves until the plant has six or more sets of leaves. Once your basil plant has developed upwards of six sets of leaves, it will be ready for pruning on a frequent basis.

Once your basil plant has reached this level of maturity, you may be tempted to pick basil leaves immediately. As best practice, most experienced gardeners recommend holding off on picking basil leaves until early to mid-morning. 

This might sound arbitrary, but there is a logic behind it. Basil leaves have the most potent, fresh essential oils in the wee hours of the day. As the day goes on, their essential oils lose their freshness, which can make the basil taste less potent. If you are planning on using basil leaves for medicinal or cosmetic purposes, your products may be impacted by essential oils that have lost their fresh edge on basil leaves.

When harvesting basil, your methods will mostly depend on the amount of basil you intend to use. If you need a tiny quantity of basil, simply cut off the number of leaves you need for your recipe or purposes. If you need a lot of basil, don’t be afraid to cut all of the leaves off of the stem.

While this might seem like you are sacrificing your basil harvest for the year, you might find that pruning the plant in this way yields a higher production level overall throughout the season. A bushy, full basil plant will give you plenty of basil to dry before the growing season ends. 

If you’re struggling to tell where to start by harvesting basil, we recommend beginning at the top of the plant and moving downwards from there. 

There are several other key tips that experienced gardeners would recommend. As suggested, “If cutting back entire stems, cut back to a third of the plant’s height, cutting above a leaf pair. If cutting the plant back by a third, wait a few weeks to harvest again. If for some reason you have not been regularly picking your basil, be sure to pinch back the plant at least every six weeks to encourage bushy growth. Also, pinch back any blooms to facilitate foliage growth.”

Drying basil in a microwave

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When we think of drying basil, we may think of using a complicated machine such as a dehydrator to accomplish this goal. While there are tools and gadgets specifically designed for dehydrating fruits, vegetables, and herbs, there are plenty of humble items that can get the job done that are probably already in your kitchen or home.

To dry the basil in the microwave, begin by picking the amount of basil you desire from the plant as detailed in the above section. After picking your preferred amount of basil, wash the basil leaves and pat them dry. If they are still attached to the stem, you can go ahead and pluck them off of the stem at this stage.

Once you have taken the basil leaves off of the stem, arrange your fresh basil leaves on a paper towel. Take care to place the basil leaves in a single layer so that they dry evenly and effectively. If you have more basil leaves than you can fit on a single layer of paper towel, simply place another paper towel over the top of the first layer and place another set of leaves on a single layer over a paper towel. 

After a few layers, you may want to save the rest of your basil leaves for a second batch to avoid uneven or ineffective drying using this method.

Once you have spread single layers of basil leaves on paper towels, set the cooking time on the microwave for 45 seconds and press “cook.” If your microwave only offers express cooking options, select “one minute” and monitor the time until it hits 15 seconds. At that point, stop the microwave and proceed to the next step.

After your basil leaves have been microwaved for 45 seconds, remove the plate or dish layered with paper towels and basil leaves from the microwave. At this point, your leaves will have shrunk and dehydrated some. Since they are smaller, you should be able to condense them into a single layer.

An open microwave oven with basil leaves for drying.

Once you have set your dry basil leaves in a single layer on a paper towel and microwave for an additional 30 seconds. If the leaves look shriveled up and devoid of moisture for the most part at this point, you can stop microwaving them and proceed to the final step.

If the basil leaves are not done drying, you can check the leaves to make sure that they are drying and crisping rather than burning. After giving them a quick look over, set the leaves in the microwave one more time and microwave them for half a minute.

If the leaves are shrunken and almost completely dry, they are done with being microwaved. If, on the other hand, the basil leaves still seem to have retained most of their moisture and original size, you may want to proceed to microwave them for 10 seconds at a time until they’ve reached a mostly dried out, shriveled state.

Once you have achieved a mostly dry, mostly shrunken set of basil leaves, you are ready to let them cool. As they cool, they will finish drying and shrinking if they are almost to that point when you pull them out of the microwave. After the basil leaves have become totally cool to the touch, they should be as crispy as they can get. 

To achieve the kind of dried basil you get in a jar or other container, simply crush the leaves with your hands after they’ve dried completely. Of course, you can also keep the basil leaves whole after they dry for an interesting garnish on pizzas, pasta dishes, omelets, soups, and more.

How to air dry fresh basil?

A bundle of hanging basil leaves for drying.

If you have more time on your hands (at least several weeks), you can go a more traditional route toward drying fresh basil by letting your basil air dry. To do this, pick your basil as described above. It’s best to keep basil leaves on the stem for this method, so you can tie up bundles of sprigs. Tying up bundles of individual leaves may be more challenging.

Then, thoroughly wash your basil by soaking it in a sink full of cool water or a large bowl of cold water. Let the basil sit in the water until all the dirt, bugs, and other debris from outside have floated to the surface. Delicately swish the basil in the water to ensure that all the bugs, dirt, and other natural sediment have been washed from your leaves. 

If the water is particularly dirty, you may want to dump it out and replace it with fresh water for a second wash. After that, lay the basil sprigs on a tea towel or paper towel to get out the excess moisture. Inspect the basil for signs of damage such as sunburn, holes, and shriveled leaves. Feel free to discard any leaves that don’t meet your standards.

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Once your basil has been thoroughly cleaned and dried, gather sprigs of basil into bundles. Tie the small bundles at the base of the stem with twine or a similar string. Tie it very tightly since the basil leaves will shrink over the course of the drying process.

After that, tie the same string into a knot so that you can hang it from a paperclip. Create a clothesline type of string hanging in an area away from heat sources. Ovens and radiators might create too much heat and burn your basil instead of drying it. 

Next, loop your knotted end through a closed paperclip and hang the paperclip on your line of string. At this point, you just need to let your basil leaves dry on their own and check them periodically to make sure the knots are keeping your bundles secure.

Is it better to freeze or dry fresh basil?

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Although freezing or drying fresh basil is a decision that only you can make based on your tastes, uses, and preferences, some suggest that freezing fresh basil has better results for flavor.

As explains, “You can dry it or freeze it, but freezing retains the fresh taste better. Before you start, wash basil in cold water and dry; a salad spinner works well for this step. To freeze your basil, pull leaves from stems.

Then, in a food processor, with knife blade attached, puree 2 cups packed leaves with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper. Drop the mixture by teaspoonfuls onto the paper; freeze one hour or until firm. Transfer the dollops (you should have about 16) to a self-sealing, freezer-safe plastic bag and store for up to two months.”

Alternatively, you can freeze whole basil leaves by blanching them in water that has been heated to a rolling boil. Just blanch the leaves in the boiling water for one or two seconds before removing them from the boiling water. After you remove the leaves from boiling water, dunk them in cold water (such as an ice bath) or rinse them with running cold water. 

Frozen basil leaves in zip lock plastic.

Once you dry the leaves off with a paper towel or clean tea towel, transfer them to a freezer-safe, airtight container. For easy access to single frozen leaves, arrange them in a single layer and separate layers with freezer-friendly sheets of wax paper or parchment paper.

To use frozen basil leaves, simply pull them out of the freezer, take the desired amount out of the container, and use them in the recipe the same way that you would use fresh basil.

They should defrost quickly. If you are using frozen basil in a recipe that requires fresh basil, adjust the amount to your taste. Frozen basil tends to be more potent on the palate than fresh basil, so you may need to use a little less.