Last Updated on October 15, 2020
Fresh basil is a highlight of the summer garden, but once the temperatures dip in fall, you need to act fast if you want to keep enjoying basil into the winter. Consider potting up small plants and growing them indoors so you can still use some occasional fresh basil leaves, and then get busy harvesting the rest and preserving basil leaves with one of the easy methods below. Here are several options for preserving fresh basil, including instructions on how to dry basil leaves in the oven, dehydrator, or using free solar energy, as well as how to freeze basil for winter use.
Basil is a staple in the herb garden, an easy-to-grow annual and one of many herbs that tolerate shade. It’s a warm-weather herb that won’t take off till temperatures rise, and it will turn black and die when overnight temperatures drop below 36 degrees. Freezing or drying fresh basil means that when those tender plants get zapped by fall’s falling temperatures, you still have plenty of basil leaves preserved to enjoy until you can replant the following season.
Tender basil leaves are a snap to preserve. Basil’s delicate leaves dry and freeze easily. You can also make a huge batch of pesto and freeze it, and then you have a fantastic pasta topping at the ready whenever you need it. I like to make my pesto with pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts, as they’re waaaaay less expensive and full of useful nutrients like magnesium, which helps support immune function and better sleep.
HARVESTING BASIL TO DRY OR FREEZE
Like other greens and herbs, it’s best to harvest basil in mid-morning, when the dew has dried, but the cells of the leaves are still plump with moisture. Basil’s flavor should be best if you harvest just before the plant starts to flower.
Use scissors to carefully cut tender growth and collect in a bowl, large paper bag, or basket. Try to avoid bruising the leaves.
Rinse well to remove bugs and dust. Remove and compost the stems and flowers; you will only be drying the leaves.
Spin basil leaves in a salad spinner or blot them with a clean towel to remove extra water.
According to the National Center for Food Preservation, unlike herbs such as sage and thyme, which can be dried easily by simply hanging to dry, fresh basil and other herbs with a high moisture content are prone to molding if not dried quickly. This generally means using a dehydrator or your oven unless you live in a very dry climate.
If you don’t own a dehydrator, you can use your oven to dry basil, but you’ll need to keep a watchful eye on it. Ovens can’t easily be kept at a low enough temperature for optimal drying, so your basil is more likely to burn. It’s also possible higher temperatures destroy valuable compounds.
There’s also the issue of adding heat to your house in summer, which few of us want to do. I have a workaround for you in the instructions on how to dry basil in the oven.
Because you can keep the temperature very low in a dehydrator, it’s the preferred way to dry basil leaves. If it’s still hot in your area when you’re drying basil, dehydrators have the added advantage of being able to move outdoors to prevent heating up your house. When it’s 90 degrees and humid out but I still have piles of food to dry, we move the dehydrator out onto our covered porch and skip the added heat and noise.
Here’s more on the basics of dehydrating and why a simple dehydrator is a good investment for upping your food preservation game. My 15-year-old dehydrator has dried untold pounds of garden produce for our family and friends. It’s reaching the end of its life, though. Here’s the one I’m thinking of getting to replace it. Here are some other options to consider.
HOW TO DRY BASIL IN A DEHYDRATOR
To dry basil in a dehydrator, simply lay the rinsed and spun leaves on your dehydrator trays, making sure they don’t overlap. Set the dehydrator at 95-110 degrees and run for two to four hours. You can put the machine on a timer if you’re concerned about forgetting it.
Check if your basil has dried completely. Leaves should be crispy and easily crumbled. If they’re not, return to the dehydrator for an additional half hour and check again.
Here’s more on drying herbs in the dehydrator from Herbal Academy.
HOW TO DRY BASIL IN THE OVEN
To dry basil in your oven, simply lay your basil leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with a baking mat or parchment paper, making sure they don’t overlap. Set your oven to the lowest possible temperature, ideally well under 200 degrees. Some oven may have “keep warm” and other low settings that may help you achieve lower temperatures.
Because we’d actually like the temperature to be closer to 100 degrees, you can try cutting the heat when an oven thermometer reads in that neighborhood and turning the oven light on to provide some additional heat.
Rather than leaving the oven running continuously and risk burning your precious basil leaves, you can keep an eye on the temperature and add heat as necessary.
I use this heat-cutting method with my famous “no-fail” baked kale chips and it works quite well. Since I’ve often got too much going on to be trusted keeping an eye on what’s in the oven and love saving energy, this would be my preferred method if I wanted to dry basil in the oven. But I find it more practical to use the dehydrator for drying all the yummy garden produce we preserve every summer.
HOW TO DRY BASIL WITH FREE HEAT FROM YOUR CAR
One other option to consider, which adds no heat to your house and uses no energy at all: Use your parked car to dry basil leaves. It sounds a little odd, but it actually works — your car acts as a solar oven to dehydrate herbs like basil. Plus your car will smell amazing.
Just bring your drying screens or baking pans out to your car and let the heat of the sun do the rest. Check after a few hours and allow them to continue drying if they haven’t dried completely.
I always love making use of natural energy sources when possible, like homegrown herbal sun tea, and of course our fabulous solar panels. If you try drying basil leaves in your car, let me know what you think.
HOW TO AIR-DRY BASIL
If you live in a dry climate, you can air-dry basil as you would other herbs. You can lay basil leaves on a drying screen and place somewhere with good air circulation until they’re fully dry. Drying basil in the sun is not recommended, as it will likely lessen the potency of the finished product.
You can also try tying small bunches of basil still on their stems and hanging them upside down by their stems, an old-fashioned way to dry herbs that works well if your air is dry enough. In humid summer climates, this method will likely lead to mold, so don’t go this route unless your climate is very dry.
Make sure all water from rinsing is gone before hanging up basil bunches to air dry. You can place in a paper bag with holes cut in it to keep off dust and catch any leaves that fall, but you’ll reduce air circulation this way.
Air drying basil bunches can take up to a month, depending on humidity and air circulation.
HOW TO DRY BASIL LEAVES IN A MICROWAVE
Though microwaving isn’t a top choice for drying basil leaves, apparently you can dry small amounts of fresh herbs on paper towels in the microwave. Here’s someone from Food and Wine’s test kitchen who demonstrates how:
HOW TO TELL WHEN DRIED BASIL IS READY
When basil has fully dried, it will be crispy and crumble easily. If it isn’t crispy and crumbly yet, put it back in your oven, dehydrator, or car and check again every half hour until it is.
HOW TO STORE DRIED BASIL LEAVES CORRECTLY
My go-to resource for all things dehydrating, Mary Bell, says it’s best not to crush dried herbs until you’re ready to use them. Put your whole dried basil leaves in an airtight container (preferably tinted glass like these) and store somewhere protected from light and heat (not next to your stove!) to preserve flavor.
Stored properly, dried basil leaves should keep for a year or more.
HOW TO FREEZE BASIL LEAVES
While dried basil is lovely in lots of cooked foods, for your homemade pizzas or as flavorful topping for your favorite pasta dish or soup, frozen basil comes much closer to fresh in flavor than dry does. I usually keep a small supply of frozen basil leaves to see us through the winter months.
To freeze basil leaves, simply rinse and remove excess moisture. Then place basil leaves in a bag or container in the freezer. Once frozen, you can crumble them up to save space and have them ready to add to your favorite recipes when fresh basil isn’t growing in your garden.
You may blanch basil leaves for a few seconds in boiling water before plunging in cold water if you want to better preserve their color, but I never bother.
Another option for freezing basil: Chopped basil can be combined with a little olive oil and frozen in ice-cube trays. As long as you don’t mind the extra oil, I’ve read this method preserves flavor and color better than freezing the leaves on their own.
What’s your favorite way to preserve basil?
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Photo credits: PublicDomainPictures, monicore, cocoparisienne, e-firm
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.