I cook with basil year-round, but I’m at my most inspired and inventive during the summer, when I can harvest it fresh from my garden. Brushing against the tender leaves releases such a waft of rich, spicy fragrance that I’m instantly moved to cook something—the hard part is deciding what to make. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Discover the many faces of basil
I’ve had a recurring summer fling with the classic Sweet Genovese basil, but there are dozens of other basil varieties, each with its own personality. These seven varieties are increasingly common, but they may have slightly different names at your nursery or farmer’s market.
Treat basil with care
This sun-loving herb is vigorous in the garden but once cut, it’s fragile and susceptible to bruising, so careful handling and storing are a must. In my early restaurant days, on herb duty, the chef made me sharpen my knife every few minutes when cutting herbs to avoid bruising the tender leaves. Perhaps that was overkill, but I did learn to make friends with basil. I’ve heard of many ways of cutting basil to keep the edges from blackening, from slicing the leaves vertically to drawing the knife toward you as you cut. A sharp knife really does make all the difference: The less you mash, the less you’ll damage the leaf. If it’s appropriate for your recipe, and you have the time, gently tearing the leaves instead of cutting them is a nice alternative and seems to reduce blackening.
Slicing and mincing basil
I’ve experimented with many ways of storing basil, and what works best for me is keeping the stems of cut basil in a jar of water in a cool spot in the kitchen, as if it were a bouquet of flowers. With regular changes of water, basil will keep for three to five days like this. If you must refrigerate basil, keep it in the jar and cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag (preferably a thicker type, like a heavyduty zip-top bag). If you get basil from the store that’s been refrigerated in a plastic box or bag, you should leave it in that packaging.