Storage Tips

How to Stop Fresh Basil From Wilting (& Making You Miserable)

August  3, 2018

Basil: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

It may be the herb that turns ordinary salads, sauces, and sandwiches into summer salads, sauces, and sandwiches, but it’s also a ticking time bomb: The very second I buy it from the market, it slouches and slumps. Its arms are touching its toes before I even get it into my kitchen, and over the course of the week (if that long!), I inevitably watch the once-perky bunch lose the will to live. It pains me, the defeatist feeling that there’s nothing I can do to keep my basil alive.

There are lots of tips for storing fresh basil—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 in order to determine which one will be the true lifeline.


The Experts' Recommendations

First, let’s review what the pros say.

  • Alexandra Stafford, who cooks a wondrous array of beautiful, delicious food (if you follow her on Instagram, I don’t have to tell you this), 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).
  • While most tender herbs will last longer if they’re stored clean and dry, I couldn’t find many authorities that recommended rinsing basil leaves before storage.
  • Some experts advise loosely covering the bunch with a plastic bag: J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats goes a step further. He has found that “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 was also an essential step in keeping them fresh.” He stores herbs in sealed quart containers with just a small amount of water on the bottom. Would a tight seal be much more effective than a loose cover?
  • 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? I shall see).

The Test

Armed with that information, I bought a few big bunches of basil, split them up, fetched my prayer beads, and organized six tests.

1. The control (aka what no one recommends):

Place the unwashed basil in the fridge in the plastic bag it came in. Also known as "the lazy gal's method." Also known as what my boyfriend would do if I weren't there to scold him harshly.

Beautiful basil, on the left. When I shoved it back in its bag (and towards its imminent death), on the right.

2. The “flower bouquet” method:

Trim basil and place it in a jar with a bit of water.

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2 (A). Store at room temperature, uncovered.

2 (B). Store at room temperature with a loose plastic bag draped over.

The basil on the left is going to stay uncovered for the rest of the week. The basil on the right is a little more modest.

2 (C). Store at room temperature in a sealed quart container.

Shoved, rather uncomfortably, into a quart container.

2 (D). Store in the fridge in a loose bag.

A rare peek into the inside of my fridge. Can you spot the basil, hiding in plain sight?

3. The renegade:

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.

Clean, dry, ready to roll.
This baggie will be the basil's home for the next several days.

Every evening at 8 PM on the dot, I made my "basil rounds" (I'm a doctor, did you know?), examining each of my patients and taking copious notes on the firmness and color of the leaves, as well as the smell and "slime" of the bunch overall. I'll spare you the super detailed notes and get straight to a synopsis of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And, a quick disclaimer: My apartment is very warm, and the A/C does not reach the kitchen. Additionally, many of the "room temperature" bunches were actually quite close to my often-in-use oven, which has no heat retention. In other words, it's a sauna in there. I'm sure all of the basil would've lasted longer in a more temperatre environment.


The Results

On Day 1, winners were already being distinguished from the losers. The refrigerated bouquet (2D) was, out of the gate, the gloomiest and darkest of the bunch (my notes say: "Already sad and droopy. Wouldn't be proud to put this on a caprese. Probably won't keep these past day 3"). Eye this evidence:

Bunch 2D: I'm sorry for the harsh light, but I want to show you what it looks like when you put a bunch of basil in the fridge for 24 hours.

All of the others looked okay (this was the first day, after all), though I did notice some black spots on the renegade leaves (3). The room temperature flower bouquets, both uncovered (2A) and covered (2B), were holding up, though I had some concerns with the method: It was hard to know whether all of the leaves were getting sufficient water, and I felt like I had to peel off a lot of low-hanging leaves so that they wouldn't be submerged (which felt like a waste). Plus, the outer leaves seemed to have a higher propensity toward droopage than the inner ones.

As for the quart container bunch (2C), I noticed troublesome condensation that I thought could lead to mold. I decided to keep the top of the container propped slightly open for the rest of the experiment so that there would be at least some air circulation.

The biggest surprise was that the control bag (1), which I just shoved into the fridge as it was, still looked just fine! I would've definitely used it to garnish a salad, with no need to blanch, pulverize, or manipulate it in any way.

Those are some freshy-fresh basil leaves right there! Photo by Emiko Davies

But by Day 2, the control bag's fortunes had taken a sudden turn. It was droopy, with crushed brown leaves, and many of the outer leaves had started to fall off. Nothing smelled funky or moldy, but it would never win a beauty contest.

The other big loser? The refrigerated flower bouquet (2D). While the inner part of the bunch was fine (green, perky, fresh), the outer leaves were drooping, and some were almost completely black.

I noticed that the room temp bouquets were starting to droop a little, but not dramatically. Although some of the leaves on the uncovered bouquet (2A) were starting to yellow, it was faring better than its covered counterpart (2B). When I took that bunch out of the jar to freshen the water, many of the leaves fell off, and I noticed there was sliminess and discoloration at the bottom of the stems.

The quart container leaves (2C) looked perky and smelled fragrant, while the renegade leaves (3) were pretty much the same as the day before.


Day 3 rolled around and I declared the control bag nearly dead ("would not eat 90% of it"). The refrigerated bouquet was nearly as bad, except that some of the leaves in the middle remained green and firm. Compared to those two, the renegade leaves looked and smelled fresher, though black spots continued to proliferate.

As for the room temperature bunches, the basil stored in the quart container looked the best: "No leaves are completely black and fewer leaves are falling off!" I noted. The other bouquets, both covered and uncovered, were losing a lot of volume.


On Day 4, I started to eliminate. I declared the control basil (1) and the refrigerated bouquet (2D) dead (see below). Of the refrigerated options, the renegade method (3) worked best, but by this point, almost all of the leaves were spotted with black.

Yucky yucky, ew ew ew. On the left, bunch 1. On the right, bunch 2D.

I also decided that the uncovered bouquet (2A) was healthier than the covered one (2B). The shrouded bunch was much droopier, with many black leaves and an off smell. The uncovered bouquet still smelled fresh, with only a couple of discolored leaves. (Could it be because the uncovered bunch was slightly larger, with a high-sided jar that helped it to stand tall?)

The droopier bunch (on the left) was covered with a loose plastic bag (2B). The bunch on the right was exposed to "the elements" (2A).

By Day 5, I'd crossed off all of the refrigerated options. Not only were the renegade leaves (3) black and slimy, but they also smelled funky.

Looks bad, smells bad, probably tastes bad, too.

That left the three room temperature options, among which the loosely covered bunch (2B) was definitely the weakest link. It was droopier and darker than the uncovered bouquet (2A), and some the leaves had even started to mold.

Fight the urge to look away from moldy 2B.

And so I was down to the uncovered bunch (2A) and the quart container bunch (2C), both of which were fairly happy and healthy, even into the morning of Day 6.

Yes, there were black spots, some droopiness, and—in the case of the uncovered bunch—a thinning of leaves (see photos below), but they looked and smelled fresh. Some of the leaves were even pristine enough to adorn an open-faced sandwich!

The uncovered bouquet on day 0; the (slightly bald) uncovered bouquet on the morning of day 6.
The winner! Fresh, full, fragrant.

So What Are the Takeaways?

  1. If you have to, you can store your basil in a plastic bag, just as it is, in the fridge, for a few hours. My "control basil" was fine for the first day or so. No need to tend to it immediately.
  2. You can also pluck the leaves, wash and dry them, and store them like salad greens if you're going to be using them within a day. That's the renegade technique, and it also presented no issues for the first couple of days.
  3. For longer-term storage, avoid the refrigerator! Store your basil like a flower bouquet—uncovered! (2A)—or tuck it into a quart, leaving the top propped open (2C). Both work well, but I actually prefer the quart container method: It has the advantage of containing your bunch, which seems to stymy droopage and prevent leaves from shedding onto the counter. Bunch 2C seemed to maintain its volume better than 2A (this might not b an issue if you're using a little basil every day).
  4. Keep your basil in a sunny—but not hot—location (a tricky balance). I've taken to keeping my basil in the windowsill in my bedroom, which is air-conditioned at night.
  5. Recognize that a) your basil probably won't stay good for "weeks" (I'd say 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.

Sure, keeping six bunches of wilting basil in my very small kitchen for a week was unduly stressful, but I feel more confident knowing the methods that are proven to work. And now that I'm back on the basil bandwagon...

Okay, lay it on me: How do you keep your basil bunches fresh? Do tell—in the comments below!

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39 Comments

Lynda W. September 8, 2018
Basil will easily root in water. Buy or cut it as fresh as possible. <br />Remove all the lower leaves and stand it up in water so that no leaves are underwater. Keep in a place with some light but not in a sunny place. Pretty soon you should see little rootlets forming. When rooted, plane each one in a pot, fertilize, and increase the light exposure gradually until the plant is strong. I haven't seen any other comment that explains why the ones at room temperature and in water were more successful.. They are trying to grow!
 
Lynda W. September 8, 2018
*place*
 
Sandi L. August 23, 2018
Thanks everyone for the advice. My original question was for the abundance of herbs I grew outside this season..and trying to preserve them for winter. I usually grow them inside in the winter but had zero luck this past winter...and NO luck with basil at all inside, anytime. So, I am delighted it is flourishing outside. I bought my spice grinder mainly for whole seed coriander, whole cloves, cinnamon bark and also an Indian salt that I’ll be exploring ( as well as different kinds of Indian black pepper.) Since I have an overabundance of mint—-and it will still continue to grow for another month or so—I’m going to explore drying it and will report back. I’ve taken a clipping of basil and, following the recommendations of this article, will root it with the idea of growing it inside during the winter. I have a very hot southwest window and live in a sunny state. I had an indoor tomato plant there for three years that continued to fruit. I never had the size or volume that comes from outdoors, but it was nice picking a fresh tomato off the vine in January....
 
Sandi L. August 22, 2018
Loved this article! This year, I’m going to try to dry some basil, mint, oregano and thyme. And, I just bought a spice grinder. My question is: is it better tovdry the herbs, store them and then grind as I need them or store them already ground??? Thanks in advance.
 
Smaug August 22, 2018
Thyme and oregano dry pretty well- it's better to store them whole. Ground is convenient for some things, but for most uses it's quite sufficient to crumble they dried herbs with your fingers right before using.
 
Picholine August 23, 2018
I would just dry them and crush , no need to grind. I “dry” small bunches on paper plates with a piece of paper towel in microwave using 15 sec intervals till dry and crisp. Then crush in paper towel and store. I do not dry basil as I feel that once dried it has very little flavor left. I freeze it. And when ready to use just crumble in the bag and drop in my sauce or dishes.
 
Smaug August 23, 2018
I don't think that any of the soft herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, chervil) dries at all well. Unless you count dill in that group- it does pretty well. I have no experience of drying mint, but I have my doubts- it's not something you hear much of people doing.
 
Picholine August 23, 2018
Agree, they dry but no flavor. Funny though I dry flat parsley to put in salads and soups mostly for the look of parsley sprinkled in. Never com-ares with fresh!
 
Inga W. August 21, 2018
What has worked best for me is placing the basil in a plastic bag, not sealed, but loosely closed and leaving on the counter.
 
Kathy August 18, 2018
I went camping for 2 weeks and picked some of my fresh basil and fresh mint to flavour salads and iced tea. I keep both herbs in separate zip top storage bags on the counter of my trailer. No water, no special treatment and they stayed fresh and tasty for the entire trip!
 
zapatera August 17, 2018
Just got lucky with a grocery store basil plant. But if you have the cut stuff, I’ve had great success with things like mushrooms and the cute little cukes by putting them in hard-ish plastic containers and covering with waxed paper, held in place with those ubiquitous USPS rubber bands, with making a few air holes in the paper with a two-tined fork. No more slime!
 
Nancy L. August 17, 2018
I've had a LOT of success with storing the basil in a bit of water in a jar, in a bright location. I cut slits in a plastic bag and place over the basil and it will last at least 6 days.
 
Monica B. August 17, 2018
Did you test Debbie Meyer bags? I have a bunch of mint that is still green from 2 weeks ago.
 
Lynne W. August 17, 2018
i just get a new whole potted basil plant from Trader Joe's on occasion. Cut back old growth when necessary. It should be good for at least a couple of months.
 
Richard J. August 17, 2018
Great tips Sarah! Thanks for doing the legwork.
 
deanna August 17, 2018
If you're growing your own basil, cut back your plant before it blooms (don't pinch) and voila! You get a whole new healthy plant. Pinching encourages blooming, cutting back encourages more leaf growth. Blooms add a bitterness, so always discard.<br />I rinse basil, dry it and put in plastic with damp paper towel in frig. Works like a charm. You really must always rinse the leaves to get rid of dirt and bugs.
 
Kate @. August 17, 2018
If you end up with wilted leaves (wilted, not black or spotted) you can usually bring them back to life by putting them in a bowl of cool water for an hour or so. But then use them right away. Basil, you do play hard to get, but you are SO delicious!
 
Gene-Marie S. August 17, 2018
Best option keep a live basil plant in a pot in your kitchen or in a window box or garden. Do as the Italians do: Pick it. Use it. Immediately. Basil really does not keep. Though I’ve enjoyed reading the test kitchen results. Kudos for trying. 😉
 
Picholine August 7, 2018
Smaug , I make new plants all year from water rooted Basil stems creating new plants for fresh basil all winter! No problem no science involved.
 
Smaug August 7, 2018
An unusual approach for an annual plant, though marijuana growers have taken to doing it. That, however, is largely a matter of preserving desirable clones. Mostly I think it's because seeds are so easy for most of these plants. In the case of Basil, however, you're likely to get a plant that's already in it's flowering cycle, thus past it's prime. Rooting in water is almost never used by professionals, for various reasons, but doing it certainly does involve science; we're not born knowing that stems in water will root.
 
Picholine August 7, 2018
I pick the stems pull a few leaves off and put in a clear glass container as if a bouquet. Leave out on counter . If I don’t think I’ll use all up ,I pull of leaves from stems but not being to fussy if I get a few small stems and place in plastic bag and freeze. After frozen the basil will crush in the bags to sprinkle in dishes, sauces, pasta even pizza. Tastes as fresh as the freshly picked. I pick and pinch back these wonderful plants all summer and freeze to enjoy a nice frozen stash all winter!
 
Karen L. August 6, 2018
This works even better: refrigerate, or otherwise chill the water before putting the basil in it, on the counter, uncovered. Learned this from a farmer, and it's the best!
 
Keith S. August 6, 2018
I knew nothing beyond freezing-in-EVOO before reading this, and found it edifying and lovely--my new project will be to test the mason-jar-w/-holes approach. Couldn't the horticulturists saving the shippable heirloom tomato take a day or two on basil survival genes, too?
 
HeidiHo! August 6, 2018
I have a large basil plant in my yard that is healthy and happy in full sunlight. When I trim it, I put the clippings uncovered in a jar on the kitchen counter out of direct sunlight. If it's a large bunch that I don't use quickly enough yes, flower buds will appear (pinch them off) and roots will grow. I have very successfuly potted new plants once sufficient roots have grown.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. August 6, 2018
How far down do you clip the plant? And do you put it in a jar with water?
 
HeidiHo! August 6, 2018
I typically clip off several bunches (I use a lot of fresh basil!) about the size shown in the article photos, pinch off lower leaves to use that day and to make sure stems are stripped about 3-4 inches from the bottom. Yes, fresh water is an absolute necessity! I CHANGE the water every day or two, and before putting the clippings into the fresh water, I gently wipe the stems with a damp tea towel or paper towel to remove any potential slime and snip a tiny bit of the stem to aid in water absorption. Once roots appear, I also gently rinse them in fresh water before going back into the jar. Seems to work well for me!
 
HeidiHo! August 6, 2018
Also, if you see leaves beginning to spot or turn brown/black, pinch them off right away so they don't impact the rest of the "plant"
 
Erica G. August 17, 2018
Any clipping will root after a few days. I had a friend grow basil hydoponically in her kitchen window by accident. She put a bunch in a fishbowl of water and it created a beautiful spiral of roots in the bowl. It lived a few years. She had a west facing window with a lot of warm afternoon light.
 
Terry August 5, 2018
This past week I inadvertently used what was found to be the "best" method here, storing bunches in a glass of water, uncovered, on the countertop. They started wilting almost immediately, and even though I tried trimming the stems to help with water uptake this didn't help. By the time I got around to plucking and blanching the leaves a few days later, many of them had fallen off and many of the still-attached ones had turned dark. I assumed that I'd done something wrong (such as not placing them in the fridge) but according to this article I did just the right thing. What went wrong?
 
Cynthia P. August 5, 2018
I store mine uncovered in a mug of water on the counter, out of direct sunlight. <br /><br />I'm intrigued by the quart method and wonder if it could be replicated in a mason jar with a hole or two n the lid (to avoid plastic).