Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on June 18, 1998. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Basil Pretty, Yields Good Cooking Flavor
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Basil is as pretty as a coleus in the flowerbed, yet yields the key ingredient to many favorite dishes. Whether you say "bay-zil" or "baa-zil," we can agree on one thing. Juicy tomato chunks mixed with olive oil, freshly torn basil and garlic spooned over hot pasta is a true feast.
Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is incredibly easy to grow. Not only does it add grace to the herb garden or tomato planting, but the numerous shapes and sizes make excellent additions to the perennial garden, shrub border or container garden.
Tuck basil into unused garden corners, display among vegetables, edge a flower garden or plant as groundcover along a path where they gently release pungent anise aroma when brushed. Smaller basil cultivars make superb edging for the perennial border, vegetable garden or handsome foliage contrast in containers of flowers.
Basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun and well-drained soil. It grows quickly from seed but several varieties of transplants can be found in the herb section at your garden center. Basil thrives in our warm summer weather and excels in fall plantings as well.
Most edible basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. The smooth-leafed types that grow 2 to 3 feet tall are best known for culinary use. Highly perfumed, crinkled- and ruffled-leafed varieties also make superb pesto and double as great focal points in the landscape.
One of the prettiest groups of basils for the landscape is Thai basils. These have deep maroon-tinged leaves on purple stems and whorls of intense purple flowers. They have a concentrated anise flavor which might overpower some foods.
Harvest basil just as the flower buds begin to form. The leaves contain the most concentrated oils and provide the best flavor and fragrance at this time. Once the plant begins to expend energy in flower and seed production, it loses some of its potency.
Cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than one fourth the plant. This leaves enough foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good in the landscape.
Simple air-drying produces tasty basil for use all winter. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place the bundle in a paper bag, gather the top of the bag around the stems and tie again. Label, and hang the bag in a dry place where the temperature doesn't get above 80 degrees. After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.
Once basil is dried, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. Keep the leaves whole if possible to preserve the oils and crush or grind only when using them. Look for basils and many other fresh herb transplants at your garden center.
For a fresh homemade pesto try:
- 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 cups of fresh basil leaves
- 1/2 cup of parsley
- 1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts
- 1/2 cup of Romano or Parmesan cheese
Place all ingredients in a food processor and puree. For best flavor use immediately.