End the Fresh Basil Wilts Now!

The other day food stylist and staff writer for www.food52.com, Sarah Jampel, wrote a helpful article on how to stop fresh basil from wilting. I say “helpful article” because fresh basil wilts is a common frustration; wilted fresh herbs detract from any recipe. So knowing how to eliminate this is a good thing.

While fresh basil is hailed as the herb that turns ordinary salads, sauces, and sandwiches into non-ordinary summer salads, sauces, and sandwiches, it’s also a ticking time bomb: The very second you buy it from the market, it slouches and slumps. As Sarah puts it, “Its arms are touching its toes before I even get it into my kitchen!” Do you relate?

There are lots of tips for storing fresh basil—and I’ve tried most of them, with little repeated or sustained success. So let’s look at what the professional chefs suggest and then what Sarah discovered.

Chef Alexandra Stafford recommends storing the basil out of the fridge: Snip off any bands, trim the bottoms, then transfer to a tall jar with a small amount of water.

But don't just abandon it there. Instead, treat the basil like a flower bouquet, changing the water every couple of days and making sure no leaves are below the waterline (they’ll get slimy and discolored).

Some experts advise loosely covering the bunch with a plastic bag: J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats goes a step further. He says “Keeping the tops of those herbs tightly covered by placing an overturned zipper-lock bag over them and sealing it against the base of the jar is an essential step in keeping them fresh.” He stores herbs in sealed quart containers in the refrigerator with just a small amount of water on the bottom.

And most people say to keep basil at room temperature (as refrigeration will cause the leaves to darken and bruise), but you'll find dissenters out there (...can they be trusted?).

The renegade approach: Store the basil leaves like salad greens. Pick, wash, and dry the leaves, then store in the fridge wrapped in a dry paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag.

Sarah tested all 4 methods and found that the renegade approach was good for the first two days, but the true winner for longer-term storage was to avoid the refrigerator and store your basil like a flower bouquet—uncovered! The best technique is to keep your basil in a sunny—but not hot—location (a tricky balance).

Sarah’s closing advice: Recognize that a) your basil probably won't stay good for "weeks" (she says six days, max) and that b) you're going to lose some leaves. Even the best storage methods presume that you'll use the basil throughout the week, rather than buying it six days in advance and waiting to eat it.

And I’ll close with a fantastic way to use your fresh basil along with zucchini (‘tis the season, after all). I found it on www.food52.com and it continues to get rave reviews, even from folks who aren’t crazy about zucchini. I bet it’s the fresh (unwilted) basil!

ZUCCHINI with BASIL, MINT, and HONEY (serves 4)

4 medium zucchini, ends trimmed

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

¼ lemon

1 teaspoon raw honey (a variety you like but nothing too strong)

10 small fresh sweet basil leaves

10 small fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Cut the zucchini lengthwise into quarters, and then crosswise into ½-inch cubes. Put them in a bowl, season generously with salt and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry.

  2. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan (large enough to fit the zucchini in a single layer) over medium high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the zucchini and let it brown. The trick to this recipe is controlling the heat so the zucchini neither steams nor burns – you want it to brown the edges while leaving the centers crisp-tender. Stir only when needed.

  3. As soon as the zucchini is done, spoon it into a serving dish, leaving the oil in the pan behind. Sprinkle with a little lemon juice, and the honey. Sprinkle the basil and mint leaves and grind some pepper over the zucchini.

  4. Variation: you can make a basil and mint pesto instead of using whole leaves. Combine 1/4 cup packed basil leaves and 1/4 cup packed mint leaves with a pinch of salt in a small food processor. Turn on the machine and drizzle 3 tablespoons oil through feed tube, until a loose sauce forms. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Once the zucchini is cooked, use this pesto to dress it -- you may not need all the pesto.

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    Alice Osborne
    Weekly Newsletter Contributor since 2006
    Email the author! alice@dvo.com

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