Basil is truly divine for so many reasons. It smells lovely, looks lovely, and tastes lovely. It is wonderfully easy to grow (as long as you know the tips and tricks) and it can grow prosperously in your outdoor herb garden or indoor windowsill garden!
Though it may seem obvious to some, there are certain things you can look for in your basil plant that will indicate when it is ready for harvesting. Technically, you can harvest it at any time, but we know the scoop on how to get the tastiest basil leaves possible!
That’s why we’ve written this over-the-top, in-depth complete guide on how to harvest basil to get the perfect leaves to garnish your dish, flavor that sauce, or amp up that cocktail. Let this aromatic herb shine to its fullest!
How is Basil Used?
Ocimum basilicum (common basil) is an herb that is a native plant all throughout Asia but has become naturalized throughout many parts of the world as well. If you happen to live in a cold area, don’t worry! They’ll be perfectly happy sitting on your windowsill.
Basil is used as a dried herb or fresh herb very commonly in many cultures of cuisines, including Italian, Indian, and tons of southeast Asian styles of cooking.
Basil can be used in both sweet and savory dishes alike. The fresh herb can be applied to top salads and pastas, whereas dried basil will be used to incorporate into sauces and marinades for fish and poultry dishes. And we can’t forget pesto!
Basil has a unique flavor that can easily be used for sweet dishes as well. Flavoring cocktails with basil gives it an interesting quality, and I’ve used it a ton of times to garnish strawberry desserts with fresh basil leaves too!
Is your basil plant looking a little bit sad? Click here to learn about the 8 reasons why your basil plant could be dying!
When is the Right Time to Harvest Basil?
There are few things to look for when it comes to knowing the right time to harvest basil leaves. If done properly, if you have around a dozen basil plants, you can be harvesting up to 6 cups of fresh leaves per week!
Sometimes, you have to wait for a good thing. That is why it is best to wait until your basil plant is about 6-8 inches tall before starting to pick leaves.
Don’t be afraid to pick leaves regularly throughout the summer and the active growing season of the plant. Though it may seem like a lot, once temperatures hover around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, your basil will be growing wild!
Properly Harvesting Basil Leaves
Some say that the best time of day for harvesting basil leaves is in the early morning. This is because the sun hasn’t heated up the plant and encouraged evaporation, so this is when the fresh basil leaves are at their juiciest and most full of oil!
If picking individual leaves, try to pick the leaves nearest to the top of the plant first. This is because it will encourage further growth by letting more sun exposure hit the leaves that are lower down.
If picking an entire stem, snip it just above the leaf pair to encourage further growth as well. Some even say that you should pick basil leaves even if you don’t need them right away! The more you pick basil leaves, the more the plant will produce.
Pro Tip: pruning basil is another important part of basil care. Pruning basil near the top of the stem is very important so that it doesn’t start to produce flowers. Each flower bud is produced at the very end of the basil stem.
Since basil is an annual plant (sometimes biennial), once it produces flowers, this indicates it is the end of the plant’s life cycle. The stems will become woody, and the leaves will start to take on a more bitter flavor. So remember: prune basil!
Additionally, not everyone knows that basil flowers are also edible! If you missed your shot and the flower bud has turned into a flower, just eat them! Basil flowers basically have a concentrated basil flavor and they make for a lovely garnish.
When to Not Harvest
Some gardeners say that you should start picking basil leaves as soon as they appear, but I don’t entirely agree with this. These leaves are not yet ripe and won’t have as robust of a flavor as more matured leaves. The basil seedling needs time to get established before you should harvest basil plant.
Additionally, picking leaves too early on and taking too many can result in the plant not being able to photosynthesize as successfully since they don’t have enough surface areas to grab energy from the sun! Wait until the basil seedling has developed true leaves that are large and a lovely deep green color.
What is the Best Method to Store Harvested Basil?
Storing basil will become necessary once you realize how many leaves these wonderful little plants are able to produce. The best methods for storing your basil harvest is going to be either by drying or freezing. (Curious about food preservation? Click here)
Dry basil does tend to have a little bit less flavor the fresh basil or frozen basil will, but it can technically keep forever in your pantry, which is more important to some.
The best method to dry basil is by picking off individual leaves and laying them flat on a surface covered with paper towel. Pick a spot in your home that is well ventilated, dry, and cool.
Your basil leaves should be completely dried out within 3-4 days. Make sure to flip your leaves so that no moisture gets trapped underneath. Once they are dry, they can then be kept whole in freezer bags, or you can crush them and keep them in a mason jar for easy application!
Many people prefer freezing basil by means of preservation because frozen basil tends to have a much more robust flavor than if it were dried. This method is also very simple.
All you have to do is grab individual leaves or entire stems and place them (not packed too tightly) in airtight bags. Make sure that there isn’t any moisture on each basil leaf as well as this can cause freezer burn.
Another strange thing that people do to make frozen basil is by creating basil cubes. Basil cubes are made by blending together fresh basil leaves, a little bit of olive oil, and water until it is a pourable consistency. Then pour the mixture into ice cube trays.
My personal favorite way to preserve harvested basil is by just making pesto! Pesto is incredible because it doesn’t have to be eaten right away. You can keep it sealed in the fridge for a few weeks or in the freezer indefinitely!
Pesto is made with a whole bunch of olive oil (or whichever oil you choose). Oil is a natural preservative, so anything made with a ton of it is going to keep for an impressively long time.
What are some Tasty Types of Basil?
Sweet Basil (Ocimum Basilicum)
Sweet basil is the most commonly grown and used type of culinary herb. This is a tender annual herb that is known for having that perfect blend of sweet and spicy fragrance and flavor, characteristic of basil leaves.
You can identify sweet basil by its bright, fresh green leaves with smooth margins. It will only grow to be around 12-18 inches in height and it is incredibly aromatic.
Purple Basil (Ocimum ‘Osmin’ Basilicum)
Purple basil is a cultivar on sweet basil with only a few slight differences. Purple basil has gorgeous dark purple leaves with the same spicy and sweet flavor as common basil.
These dark purple leaves have a copper glow to them and a a slight hint of clove on the nose. Purple basil is a very popular fresh garnish to use thanks to that ornamental foliage.
Lemon Basil (Ocimum x Africanum)
Lemon basil also goes by the names of hoary basil or Thai basil. This basil variety differs because its leaves are longer with serrated edges, and it grows to be 8-20 inches tall.
Lemon basil is incredible because it has a distinguished lemon scent and flavor to it. This aromatic herb is very commonly used in southeast Asian cuisines and is a great addition to soups, curries, stews, and stir fries.
Genovese Basil (Ocimum ‘Baxeico’ Basilicum)
Genovese basil is another variety of sweet basil that originates in Italy. It’s basically a giant version of sweet basil, growing to be up to 3 feet tall and it also has huge green leaves.
Genovese basil has wonderfully fresh and sweet basil leaf quality that are bright green. When they aren’t being used as a garnish, they are most often used for pesto or for Caprese salad.