The house is filled with the aroma of fresh basil. Is there anything more heavenly? Maybe but it is heavenly to my tastebuds. Yesterday I harvested the first large batch of basil. It filled a large mixing bowl with huge glorious leaves. It is the first of at least four harvests I’ll be able to do this summer. The number depends on the length of the severely hot weather and when the first frost comes.
Basil, I think, is one of the most used herbs and for good reason. It’s sweet yet spicy flavor can be used for both savory and sweet dishes. If you can only grow one thing I would recommend basil. The reason is, store-bought dried basil is a mere shadow of fresh. Somehow, in the processing, they manage to take a multi-faceted array of flavors and turn them into something bitter and almost unrecognizable.
I found out two secrets to growing basil I want to share with you. First, cut your basil regularly. Basil stems will start to bud when they get six sets of leaves on them. This means that it takes very little time for it to be ready for another pruning. When the buds just begin to show is the best time to harvest them. If you let them put on flowers the flavor changes significantly and the leaves get smaller and smaller. This is because the plant is concentrating all its efforts producing seeds. Its main focus throughout life is to produce seeds, to make sure there is another generation. So when the blossoms begin and especially if you let them get to the point where they are creating seed pods, the flavor of the basil changes significantly and gets bitter, plus the leaves will become half to one-quarter the size they are before blooming. I learned this the hard way. I was always getting behind in my basil harvest and we had many marginal, bitter harvests. I was afraid if I harvested too often the plant wouldn’t recover. However, I found that if I get them cut early the plant rebounds amazingly well, producing even more leaves than before and the flavor is excellent. Make sure you make your cut just above the joint in a stem where two leaves are still intact. The new branches will come from this joint and you’ll have two stems where you originally had one!
The second secret is to dry your basil at low temperatures. If you don’t have a dehydrator hang the basil in small bunches in a cool dark place that has good circulation. It doesn’t have to be cold, but I found that extreme heat is the cause for foul-tasting basil (again from experience). If you have a dehydrator set it at 90˚F mound the leaves on the rack (when they dry they will barely cover it, trust me) and let them dry for 24 hours. You will notice a distinct difference in the flavor of basil dried at a low temperature and that dried at a high one. I believe that some of the essential oils get destroyed at high temperatures and you lose much of the complexity of the original flavor.
One other very interesting thing I discovered just today when I was putting the leaves on the drying racks. All basil does not taste the same. Of course, I know that cinnamon basil, lemon basil, licorice basil, and other “flavored” basils don’t taste like sweet basil. What I didn’t know is that the sweet basils have distinctive flavors. I have some Sweet Basil and some Sweet Genovese Basil this year. The Sweet Basil’s flavor is spicy, aromatic and very complex. The Sweet Genovese is smoother and has much more of a licorice hint than Sweet Basil. I had never taken the time to taste a leaf from each variety before. I was always focused on getting them on the rack and in the dehydrator.
Do you have any great hints for growing wonderful tasting basil, or maybe a unique way of using it? Please share it in the comments below.