Saving Basil for Winter, Before It’s Too Late
Here in Minnesota we are having a cold snap. That may sound redundant; Minnesota and cold snap are basically synonymous in the minds of people who live in other parts of the country. But here we are sailing along with our summer, wearing shorts and waiting for the heirloom tomatoes to ripen, and suddenly we have forecasts of 39 degree lows at night.
It’s painful, really. So I dragged out some sweatpants and a hoodie, just to soften the blow of wearing full-body clothing again.
And I harvested the basil.
Every year, I plant several basil plants, and revel in the joys of simple tomato basil salads, easy pastas tossed with herbs and veggies just picked out back, and pizzas on the grill. But when the temps get low, I know that the delicate herb leaves will start to get spotty and pale. One morning, I will walk out to see a plant with leaves that are blackened and inedible. I’ve let this happen, and cursed myself.
Why didn’t I pick the basil?
This year, I beat the chill. And being a person in a hurry, I used the tried and true method I have developed, over many years of just this sort of panicked harvest.
You see, there are lots of ways to freeze basil. The first that comes to mind is to make pesto. But the truth is, garlic degrades and tastes funny after a month in the freezer.
So never put the garlic in at this point. Ditto with salt, which only harms your delicate basil, and you can always add it later. No, keep it simple, just basil and olive oil. That also makes your basil more useful, you can use it in sauces, soups, even pesto, and just add whatever you want then.
So, just pick the leaves, was and spin dry, and put them in the food processor. Grind them dry. This will get you a better texture. Then, drizzle in just enough olive oil to make a paste.
At this point, Martha Stewart would put the paste in ice cube trays. Now I know that Martha rules the roost, but I tried this, and didn’t like it. Once the frozen cubes of basil are transferred to a zip-top or container, they have a lot of surface area that is exposed to air. This is the enemy of basil flavor. As the weeks pass, the basil starts to oxidize, and the cubes become shaggy looking. That precious summer essence escapes into the drying air of the freezer.
We don’t want that.
So my solution is to transfer the paste to heavy freezer bags, press out the air, and seal. Flatten the paste to a thin sheet. Freeze flat.
now, when you need a bit of basil, you can take out the frozen sheet and snap off a chunk. The basil is thin enough to break with your fingers. Put the unused bag back in the freezer, and toss the frozen basil right into the simmering pot of spaghetti sauce, or the processor bowl, where you have already minced your garlic and pine nuts.
You don’t need a recipe. I filled my salad spinner to overflowing with basil, then processed it down to about 1 cup and a half of paste. In a gallon zip-top, it made a thin sheet. The bag could have accommodated twice as much basil.
So give my method a try before first frost.
You’ll thank me this winter!