Maybe it’s the herb that turns thick slices of mozzarella cheese and tomato into a Caprese salad, or what elevates marinara sauce, lemon cocktails and grilled corn. Unfortunately, basil is also a ticking time bomb: the second I buy it from the market, it sags and crumbles. His arms touch his toes before I even let him into my kitchen, and over the course of the week (so long!), I inevitably watch the once perky group lose the will to live. It hurts me, the defeatist feeling that there’s nothing I can do to keep my basilisk alive. In the blink of an eye, a bunch of basil leaves will lose their vibrant green color and turn brown (or worse)
There are plenty of tips on the best way to store fresh basil leaves – and I’ve tried most of them, with little repeated or sustained success. So it’s time to approach the issue more strategically, testing the methods side by side to see which will be the real lifeline.
The best way to store basil, according to experts
Before testing a few different methods myself – including storing basil at room temperature (both covered and uncovered in a glass jar) and storing basil in the fridge in a loose plastic bag – I reviewed what other kitchen experts had to stay on this. Alexandra Stafford, who cooks a wonderful variety of beautiful and delicious dishes (if you follow her on Instagram, I don’t have to tell you), recommends storing basil out of the fridge: cut off the strips, cut off the bottom, then transfer to a large pot with a small amount of water. But don’t just leave it there. Instead, treat basil like a bouquet of flowers, changing the water every other day and making sure no leaves are below the waterline. (otherwise they will become slimy and discolored).
While most tender herbs will last longer if stored clean and dry, I haven’t found many authorities that recommend rinsing basil leaves before storage. Some experts advise covering the bouquet loosely with a plastic bag: J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats goes one step further. He found that “keeping the tops of these herbs well covered by placing an inverted zip-lock bag over them and sealing them against the base of the pot was also an essential step in keeping them fresh.” It stores herbs in sealed one-liter containers with just a small amount of water in the bottom. Would a tight seal be much more effective than a loose lid?
And most people say to keep basil at room temperature (because refrigeration darkens and bruises the leaves), but you’ll find dissenters there (…can they be trusted? I’ll see).
Try basil preservation methods
Armed with this information, I bought a few large bunches of basil, separated them, collected my rosary, and organized six tests.
The first method I tried, which no one recommends, is to place the unwashed basil in the fridge in the plastic bag or shell it came in.. This method is also known as the “lazy girl method”, which is what my boyfriend would do if I wasn’t around to scold him harshly. There’s no strategy or logic to this method, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t work very well, especially in the long run (more on that later).
The most popular way to store fresh herbs, including basil, is to follow the flower bouquet method. Cut the basil and place it in a jar with a little water so that the bottom of the stems barely touches the water. You don’t want them completely submerged in water, as that will cause them to deteriorate faster. From there, I tried four different approaches: storing the basil at room temperature, uncovered; store the basil at room temperature with a loose plastic bag draped over the leaves; store basil at room temperature in a sealed one-quart container; store basil in the refrigerator in a bulk bag.
Finally, the basil preservation renegade: keep the leaves fresh like salad leaves. I picked, washed and dried the leaves, then wrapped them in a dry paper towel, sealed the package in a plastic bag and stored in the fridge.
Every evening at 8 p.m. sharp, I made my “basil rounds” (I’m a doctor, did you know that?), examining each of my patients and taking copious notes on the firmness and color of the leaves, as well as on the the smell and “mud” of the group as a whole. I’ll spare you the super detailed notes and jump right into a summary of the good, bad, and ugly.
And, a quick warning: My apartment is very hot and the air conditioning does not reach the kitchen. Also, many of the “room temperature” clusters were actually pretty close to my oft-used oven, which doesn’t retain heat. In other words, it’s a sauna in there. I’m sure all the basil would have lasted longer in a more temperate environment. Keep that in mind as I share the results.
From the outset, the winners were already distinguished from the losers. The chilled bouquet was, from the start, the darkest and darkest of the bunch (my notes say, “Already sad and droopy. Wouldn’t be proud to put that on a Caprese. Probably won’t keep the last 3 days “).
All the others looked OK (it was day one, after all), although I did notice a few black spots on the renegade sheets. The room temperature flower bouquets, both uncovered and covered, held up, although I had some concerns with the method: it was hard to know if all the leaves were getting enough water, and I had the felt like I had to peel a lot of lower leaves so they wouldn’t get overwhelmed (which felt like a waste). Additionally, the outer leaves seemed to have a higher propensity to fall off than the inner leaves.
Regarding the group of liter containers, I noticed some annoying condensation which I thought could lead to mold. I decided to keep the top of the container slightly open for the rest of the experiment so that there was at least some air circulation.
The biggest surprise was that the control bag, which I just put in the fridge as is, still looked fine! I would definitely have used it to top a salad, without the need to blanch it, pulverize it, or otherwise manipulate it.
By day 2, the control bag’s fortunes had taken a sudden turn. It was droopy, with crushed brown leaves, and many outer leaves had begun to fall off. Nothing smelled funky or musty, but he would never win a beauty pageant.
The other big loser? The refrigerated bouquet of flowers. While the inner part of the bunch was fine (green, perky, fresh), the outer leaves were falling off and some were almost completely black.
I noticed that the room temperature bouquets started to sag a bit, but not dramatically. Although some of the leaves of the uncovered bouquet were starting to turn yellow, it was doing better than its covered counterpart. When I took this clump out of the pot to refresh the water, many leaves fell off and I noticed there was stickiness and discoloration at the bottom of the stems.
The pint container leaves looked cheerful and smelled great, while the renegade leaves were much the same as the day before.
Halfway through the week, I said the control bag was almost dead (“wouldn’t eat 90% of it”). The chilled bouquet was almost as bad, except some of the middle leaves remained green and firm. Compared to these two, the Renegade Leaves looked and smelled fresher, although the black spots continued to proliferate.
As for room temperature clusters, the basil kept in the pint container looked the best: “No leaves are completely black and fewer leaves are falling off!” I noted. The other bouquets, covered and uncovered, lost a lot of volume.
That’s when I started eliminating them completely. I declared the control basil and the chilled bouquet dead. Of the chilled options, the renegade method worked the best, but by this point almost all of the leaves were spotted black.
I also decided that the uncovered bouquet was healthier than the covered one. The wrapped bouquet was much more droopy, with many black leaves and an unpleasant smell. The uncovered bouquet still smelled fresh, with only a few discolored leaves. (Could it be because the uncovered bouquet was slightly taller, with a tall jar that helped it stand up?)
At this point, I had crossed out all the refrigerated options. Not only were the Renegade Leaves black and gooey, but they also smelled awesome. That left the three room temperature options, of which the lightly covered bouquet was definitely the weakest link. It was droopier and darker than the uncovered clump, and some of the leaves had even started to mold.
And so I was down to the uncovered group and the quart group, both of whom were quite happy and healthy, even on the morning of day 6.
Yes, there were black spots, a bit of sag and – in the case of the uncovered clump – thinning of the leaves, but they looked and smelled fresh. Some of the sheets were even blank enough to adorn an open sandwich!
So which method is the best?
If necessary, you can keep your basil in a plastic bag, as it is, in the refrigerator, for a few hours. My “control basil” was fine for the first day or so. No need to deal with it immediately. You can also pick the leaves, wash and dry them, and store them as salad leaves if you plan to use them during the day. This is the renegade technique, and it also presented no problems for the first two days.
For longer term storage, avoid the refrigerator! Store your basil as a bouquet of flowers – uncovered – or store it in a quart, leaving the top open. Both work well, but I actually prefer the quart container method: it has the advantage of containing your bouquet, which seems to counteract sagging and prevent leaves from falling on the counter. The 2C bouquet seemed to hold its volume better than 2A (this might not be a problem if you use a little basil every day).
Where to store basil
Keep your basil in a sunny, but not hot spot (a delicate balance). I have taken to keeping my basil on the windowsill of my bedroom, which is air-conditioned at night. Recognize that a) your basil probably won’t stay good for “weeks” (I’d say six days, tops) and b) you’ll lose a few leaves. Even the best storage methods assume you’ll be using the basil throughout the week, rather than buying it six days in advance and waiting to eat it.
Sure, keeping six bunches of wilted basil in my tiny kitchen for a week was too stressful, but I feel more confident knowing the proven methods.