12 Mistakes You May Be Making with Fresh Basil
Fresh basil is one of the most beloved herbs for good reason—it's easy to grow and makes an amazing addition to a huge variety of dishes in many different cuisines. But when you're growing your own basil and using it in your recipes, are you truly letting your basil shine?
Raw or cooked, fresh basil adds its own distinct, beloved flavor to any number of dishes. It’s one of those herbs that home cooks turn to so often that many have found it more convenient to grow their own so they always have a supply on hand. Whether you need only a few leaves to perk up a salad, like this Cran-Orange Couscous Salad or a whole bunch to create the ultimate homemade pesto, you may want your own handy supply in your garden or on your windowsill.
But are you treating your basil right? It’s an easy plant to grow, but if you’re looking at a spindly collection of stalks with few leaves, you might not believe it. And if you’re disappointed with the results of your cooking—you’re just not getting that famous enticing flavor you’re looking for in your fresh basil recipes—don’t despair!
Here are some of the most common mistakes everyone makes when growing and cooking with fresh basil.
Mistake #1: You’re adding it too soon to your dish
When cooking with heat, the rule is to add dried herbs early and fresh herbs late. While dried basil takes time to soak up liquids and release its flavor, fresh basil leaves will simply wilt and lose their potency if cooked too long. With soups, stews, sauces and sautees, add the fresh basil in the last stages to add a final fillip of flavor—don’t count on it to be the base that other flavors build upon.
Mistake #2: You’re not using enough basil
If you’re substituting fresh basil for dried, adding it too soon is only one possible misstep—the other is not using enough. Drying concentrates the flavor of the herb, so you need less of it to produce the same flavor. Figure on tripling the amount of basil called for if you’re using fresh instead of dried—as in this scrumptious Spinach & Shrimp Fra Diavolo.
Mistake #3: You’re throwing away the stems
The first step to prepping fresh basil leaves for use is to remove the stems, right? But if you’re tossing the stems away, you’re also tossing away some great opportunities to add flavor. While stems are too tough to use in a recipe that calls for leaves (and can be a little bitter), they make a good addition to soups, sauces and more. One option is to cut them fine and stir them into rice or couscous along with some butter and a little bit of salt.
Mistake #4: You’re using the wrong type of basil
One of the most common types of basil is sweet basil. It’s so common that it’s usually just labeled as basil. This is what you’ll usually find at the grocery stores. If a recipe simply calls for “basil,” sweet basil is the way to go. Other varieties can have stronger flavors that can give you an unintended result in your recipes.
Holy basil is best cooked (it can be bitter when raw), but purple basil is best raw as that pretty purple color turns black when cooked. Thai basil is stronger, with an anise flavor, while lemon and cinnamon basil are aptly named for the flavors they bring to the table. These varieties are growing in popularity, although more at farmer’s markets and for home garden growing. It’s best to start by mixing these varieties with sweet basil until you know how the flavors will affect your favorite recipes.
Mistake #5: You are refrigerating basil
One of the most effective ways to store fresh herbs and keep them fresher longer is to put them in a glass of water, then in a plastic bag, and put the whole thing in the fridge. Not basil, however! Basil will keep better at room temperature. Trim the leaves from the bottom of the stems and place the basil in a glass of water, much like you would flowers. Then just leave it on your countertop, out of direct sun, for a fragrant and pretty bouquet that’s ready whenever you need to add a leaf to your dish.
Mistake #6: You’re not freezing basil
Dried basil is an option for long-term storage, of course. But if you love the particular taste of fresh basil, you’re missing your chance for year-round summery flavor.
To freeze fresh herbs, remove the whole leaves from the stem, blanch them in boiling water, then immediately dunk them in an ice bath to stop them from cooking. Let them dry, then lay them flat between layers of waxed or parchment paper in a freezer container. You can use them throughout the year exactly as you would use fresh leaves. They’ll shrink a bit, but retain all the flavor, so don’t use quite as much frozen basil as the recipe calls for fresh.
You can also puree basil before freezing—use 1 tablespoon of olive oil to each cup of basil. Pour the puree into ice cube trays and freeze to create quick, easy-to-use portions, and then place the cubes in a freezer bag or container. Thaw a cube to use in salad dressings or marinades, or drop one into a pot of soup for an extra burst of flavor.
Mistake #7: You’re not pruning enough
Basil grows quickly, and while it can be tempting to let that explosion of growth happen, it can lead to tall stalks with few leaves. Prune your basil plants every couple of weeks to encourage new leaves to continuously grow. Learn how to prune basil and other herbs the right way.
Mistake #8: You’re not harvesting enough
As with pruning, you should harvest your basil regularly to encourage the growth of new replacement leaves. Start picking leaves early, and keep picking them! The best approach is to harvest a few leaves from each plant, rather than cutting off an entire stem from a single plant. If you need to harvest a larger amount—say, for a tasty pesto—work from the top down, cutting about a third of the plant’s height. Make your cuts right above a leaf, rather than below.
Mistake #9: You’re harvesting the big leaves
It’s tempting to harvest the largest leaves of basil, the ones on the bottom branches of the plant. But those big leaves are the main power source for the plant, taking in the most sunlight and providing the rest of the plant with nutrients.
Pruning them off will leave you with a basil plant that’s tall, scraggly and sparse. For a healthy basil plant with plenty of new growth, harvest from the top.
Mistake #10: You left the pretty flowers
The basil plant produces pretty purple-blue flowers. It may seem a shame to get rid of them, but if the plant is putting its energy into growing the flowers, it isn’t growing leaves. Be sure to pinch off the flowers as they form. Think of it this way—after the plant produces flowers (and more seeds), it has fulfilled its life cycle. Preventing the flowers from growing will not only encourage your plant to produce more yummy leaves, but will keep it alive longer.
Mistake #11: You’re not feeding it enough
It’s almost impossible to overfeed basil plants. Compost, fertilizer, mulch… it loves it all. It will gobble down everything available. However, this also means that if you’re growing your basil indoors, make sure the pot isn’t sitting in water—basil is vulnerable to root fungus. The soil should be moist but not wet, as the basil will just keep drinking past the point of health.
Mistake #12: You’ve given it the wrong neighbors
Because basil is such a strong grower, it’s best to keep it away from other herbs in your garden—herbs like rosemary, thyme and others can be overwhelmed. Instead, pair basil with your tomato and pepper plants.
Ideal Basil Growing Conditions
- Plant after spring thaw, when daytime temperatures reach over 70°F
- Full sun (6+ hours per day)
- Space 10-12 inches apart
- Plant in rich, moist soil that drains well
- Water regularly, but not to the point of sogginess
- Mulch and compost recommended; fertilizer not required
- Protect during extreme heat; be sure to provide water during drought conditions