Fresh basil is one of the tastiest and most useful herbs, but it doesn't keep its color and flavor well when dried. Fortunately, there are other, better ways to preserve it. If you've ever tried to freeze fresh basil or pesto and been disappointed when it discolored as it thawed, read on! I'll also share ways to make delicious basil vinegar and basil herb salt.
If you simply stick a bunch of fresh basil into the freezer it will be discolored and mushy when it thaws. Yuck. The reason for this is that enzymes that decompose fresh plant material can survive freezing temperatures and work on the food even while it is in the freezer.
Fortunately, there is a way to freeze fresh basil so that it keeps its emerald green color and lovely flavor. You just have to blanch it first.
Blanching kills off those decomposing enzymes. To blanch fresh basil, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have a big bowl of ice water ready.
Once the water is boiling, dip your bunch of basil into it just until the basil wilts. This shouldn't take more than a few seconds. You don't want to cook out the flavor of the basil, just kill off those decomposing enzymes.
As soon as the basil has wilted, immediately transfer it to the ice water. This eliminates the residual heat that would otherwise continue cooking the basil.
Pat the blanched basil dry. Strip the leaves off the stems and transfer to freezer bags and freeze. Tip: spread the leaves thinly in the bags and store flat. This will enable you to break off just what you need when you want to use some - but not all - of a bag of frozen herbs.
Freezing Basil Oil or Pesto
The blanching method above is the first step to ensuring your basil oil or pesto comes out of the freezer with the same vibrant color and taste that freshly made pesto or herbal oil has.
After you've blanched, chilled, and patted your basil dry, strip the leaves from the stems. Put them in a blender or food processor and puree, adding enough extra-virgin olive oil to make a smooth, somewhat liquid paste. Or simply use the blanched leaves to make your favorite pesto recipe before freezing.
If you just dump your oil or pesto into a big freezer container and freeze it, you'll have to take out the whole brick of pesto or oil and use it within a week. Better is to freeze it in small containers, or even better use one of the following two methods.
Freezing Pesto or Herbal Oil in Freezer Bags
Pour or spoon your oil or pesto into freezer bags. Put in just enough to cover the surface of the bag when it is horizontal. Freeze flat (horizontal). What you'll end up with is a pesto "pancake" from which you can break off just what you need.
Freezing Pesto or Herbal Oil in Freezer Containers
Alternatively, fill ice cube trays with your basil oil or pesto. Freeze, then pop out the cubes and transfer them to freezer containers (or freezer bags). Each cube will be approximately 1 tablespoon of basil oil or pesto.
Basil vinegar is wonderful in salad dressings and marinades. One of my favorite herbal vinegars is made from the purple basil I grow in my garden preserved in white wine vinegar. The vinegar is aromatic and takes on a beautiful magenta color from the purple basil.
Basil salt is delicious in pasta sauce recipes and on grain salads. Just leave out any other salt called for in your recipe and use the basil salt instead.
To make basil salt, substitute fresh basil leaves for the rosemary in this recipe for herb salt.
To make basil butter (fabulous on pasta!), use 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh basil leaves in this basic herb butter recipe.