Freezing Fresh Herbs

Have you ever seen those little plastic boxes of “fresh” herbs in the grocery store?  The ones that cost something like three or four bucks a box for a tiny little spriglet?

Perhaps, in a moment of “must-have-for-this-recipe,” you actually gulped down the sticker shock and bought some.

And then you opened the box, and found that although they were still green, they weren’t even close to being fresh.  They were in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the oxygen they needed to make that last gasp before expiring utterly.

You can grow a lot of herbs very easily and cheaply in a small garden or even in pots on a sunny windowsill, but when winter comes, they either expire or slow down their production significantly.

Drying herbs is a good way to preserve some of them (I like it best for the woody-stemmed ones like sage, thyme, and rosemary–which dry well simply hung up in bunches), but for others, drying radically changes or even kills their fresh flavor.

Case in point: Sweet Basil.  Dried basil has a very different flavor than fresh (and it’s a lot cheaper).  They’re both good; they’re just different.  Basil is one of those fast-growing, cold-sensitive herbs that is overwhelmingly abundant in the summertime and disappears completely from northern climes in the winter.

If you don’t preserve it in some way, you either don’t get to have any, or you resort to that sprig-in-a-box.

Think a moment beyond the price to the environmental costs of packaging a single herb sprig in all that plastic and transporting it across the country.  And then put up some fresh basil, so you will never experience that tragic, shameful desperation again.

Where to Find Fresh Basil in Season

If you don’t have your own basil plants (and your neighbor won’t share theirs), and you don’t see basil at your local farmers market, ask the vendors if they have any in the field.

Oftentimes, market farmers (in rural areas, especially) don’t tend to sell a lot of herbs, so they don’t always bother harvesting them for market.  But the chance is good that if they are growing tomatoes for market, they probably have some basil, too–at least for their own use.

Each vendor has to name their own price, but in season, I sold gallon bags (yes, gallons) crammed full of basil for $5 apiece.  It ended up making more sense to me to just sell the big amount than to fiddle around with packaging little baggies for a buck.  Less waste; less plastic.

Can you imagine how much it would cost to buy enough plastic-boxed basil to fill a gallon bag?

How to Preserve Fresh Basil

Fresh basil in very perishable, so you want to process it either the same day it’s harvested or the next day at the latest.  Not only will the leaves start to blacken after that, but it will have lost a lot of the volatile oils that give it flavor.

Wash the basil gently by filling a sink with cool water and swishing the leaves around in it, then lifting them out and setting them on a towel to remove the excess water.  If you have a salad spinner (and the leaves are big enough not to slip through the basket), that makes it quicker.

If your basil is really stemmy, you probably want to remove the leaves from the stems at this point.  When I pick basil, I try to just pinch off the top sets of leaves if I can–that way it’s easier to process, and it encourages the plant to branch out and grow more leaves instead of flowering.

Once the basil is clean, de-stemmed, and mostly dry, put it in a food processor or chopper and pulse to chop it up finely.  You might have to add it a handful at a time.

[You can (and this is actually the recommended method with die-hard traditional foodies) mince the basil with a knife and blend it with the oil by hand.  But it’s also more time-consuming, so I’d only recommend it if you didn’t have a food processor or chopper.]

Once it’s all in there and chopped, turn the processor back on, and start drizzling a not-too-flavorful oil in there to act as a binding and flavor-holding agent.  I usually use olive oil–but a light one is best–don’t use something really fruity or “olive-y” or it will distract from the basil flavor that is the point of this project.

You might need to open your processor and scrape the sides, so that all the basil and oil is combined into a not-too-loose paste.  Once that’s done, figure out how you want to freeze it.

I have an old-fashioned metal ice cube tray found at a thrift store for about fifty cents.  The cube divider is removable, so I can spread the herb paste into the bottom and then press in the top part.

You can use plastic cube trays, too, but plastic absorbs flavors.  The cube shapes are nice, though, because then your fresh herb paste is already portioned out (though oftentimes I break the cubes in half, even).

Or, you can use a plastic yogurt or sour cream container or can-or-freeze jar.  Because the herbs are blended with oil, it’s not terribly hard to scrape out the amount you want to use right from the freezer.

If you’re using a single container (or smaller portioned containers), just fill them and pop them in the freezer.

If you’re using ice cube trays, freeze them for a couple of hours (or overnight), then pop out the cubes and store them in a plastic bag.  If you dip the bottom of the ice cube tray in warm water for a few seconds, it’s much easier to remove the cubes.

A note on quantities: one gallon bag of basil puréed fills one ice cube tray.  That may not seem like much, but the cubes are very concentrated–sometimes I just shave off an edge for flavoring a whole pot of soup or sauce.

Other Ideas

A lot of people I know freeze their fresh basil as pre-made pesto–adding nuts, garlic, and even hard cheese.  I don’t because sometimes I don’t want pesto–I just want the basil flavor–and making pesto from a couple of frozen cubes is a pretty quick process–put them in a bowl over some hot water to thaw and mix in the other ingredients.

But it’s worth considering this extra step if you want a straight-from-the-freezer sauce to melt over hot pasta for a quick meal.

Another herb I highly recommend freezing for the best flavor is cilantro.  It doesn’t dry well at all (most of its flavor is lost), but it’s nice blended in a paste with peanut or canola oil and then used in small quantities to freshen up canned salsas or Mexican-inspired meals in the wintertime.

How many times have you bought a bunch of fresh cilantro at the supermarket (which is usually fairly cheap) and had most of it rot before you used it?  The cost adds up over time.  Maybe it makes sense to freeze just a little?

Fresh or fresh-frozen cilantro also makes a fantastic, lively pesto with peanuts, lime juice, garlic, and feta cheese.

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