How to Cut Basil: Pruning, Harvesting, Preserving, and More

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Make the most of your basil plants by learning how to cut basil to make your own pesto, dehydrate it, and more. This post will show you exactly when and how to prune your basil plant, how to chiffonade the basil leaves, and share some handy tips for preserving your basil harvest all year!

kitchen towel with freshly harvested basil.

Many novice gardeners are reluctant to prune their basil plants, which leads to a small, puny harvest. If you get in there and routinely remove the first set of leaves, you’ll have a much larger, bushier plant that can give you tons of leaves throughout the growing season!

After growing basil myself for years and harvesting basil on several local farms, I have lots of practice snipping away at the leaves and watching what happens. I’ve also seen what happens when you don’t prune your basil…It’s much better to train your plants to grow the way you’d like to ensure a bountiful harvest all summer long!

Below, I’ll share my tips for harvesting basil from your plant and how to cut basil to serve in salads, pasta dishes, and more. All of these methods are seriously easy!

Why you need to know how to cut basil


  • HEALTHY, HAPPY PLANTS – Pruning your basil plants is a fantastic way to encourage your plants to grow more leaves than ever before! Each cut will create new stems, leading to bushy plants with lots of leaves to harvest. Harvesting regularly will also promote airflow and prevent downy mildew. It can also keep your plants from flowering for a longer season!
  • BETTER HARVEST – Since trimming your basil stems creates offshoots of new growth, you’ll be able to get a much larger harvest. It’s amazing how much proper trimming can improve your yield.
  • SEASON YOUR DISHES – Of course, knowing when and how to cut basil makes it easier to have plenty of this aromatic herb on hand for cooking, making salads, and more. It’s one of the most popular herbs for a reason, and you need to know how to harvest, store, and prepare the fresh cut basil for maximum flavor.

Equipment

For harvesting the basil, you can either use a small pair of scissors or just snap the stem with your fingers. Make sure you use clean scissors or tools to avoid spreading any diseases among your plants.

For cutting the basil into thin strips, you’ll need a cutting board and a sharp chef’s knife.

When to Prune Basil for the First Time

The best time to prune basil is when the plants are still small, typically between 6-8 inches tall. The first set of leaves should be a few inches long, and the secondary set of leaves should be right beneath them.

When you harvest fresh basil early on, your plant will create more offshoots, which will give you so much more new growth to harvest! This is the best way to get a large harvest all summer long.

freshly harvested basil leaves.

How to Trim a Basil Plant Without Killing It

There are a few things to remember. First, the basil plant relies on its leaves for photosynthesis, and if you harvest too much at once, you can slow down the plant’s growth. Never harvest more than one-third of the plant, unless it’s the end of the season and you’re harvesting before a freeze.

You also want to make sure that the plant is thriving. If the leaves become soft and droopy or show any signs of disease, the leaves will probably not dry very well, and they may spread the disease. Start with healthy, vigorous plants.

Finally, be confident! Just plucking individual leaves from your basil plants will not help you strain the plant to become bushy or produce more leaves. Give your plant a good trim following the steps below for a healthy, bushy plant that produces more leaves than you can handle!

1. Examine the stem.

Each mature stem will have at least two sets of leaves. The first set of true leaves has the largest leaves and generally has a small secondary set of leaves right beneath it. This is what we usually think of when we think of basil. It has a really iconic look!

Many people like to pinch just the very top cluster of leaves right before the second leaf node. This allows the immature leaves on the second node to branch out.

diagram showing leaf nodes on a basil plant.

A few inches down, you should see an immature set of leaves just forming. If you harvest the basil just above a leaf node, those small leaves will continue growing and create new offshoots. These will eventually cause your plant to grow even bushier than before.

Most people harvest just the first set of leaves, but if you have a really tall stem, you can harvest the first and second set of leaves as long as you have a set of immature leaves on the stem to continue growing.

In my photos, you’ll see that I harvested quite a lot. This plant was already really tall, and needed a pretty thorough trimming to keep it from toppling over. Only harvest this much if your plant is really healthy and vigorous!

2. Trim your basil.

You can either use your fingers, clean scissors, or garden snippers for this. Make a small angled cut to remove the leaves from the plant.

diagram to show where to trim basil plant.
I normally harvest by plucking the basil right where my thumb is. This ensures the leaf node in the picture still has plenty of room to grow and will branch out.

3. Store the fresh leaves.

Once harvested, the basil leaves are quite delicate and prone to wilting. They will last the best stored in an airtight container at room temperature (not in the fridge). This can be a plastic bag, glass jar, etc. Pack the container lightly instead of compressing the leaves too much.

Plan on using them within a few days, or you may notice mold developing.

4. Check back in a week.

Get in the habit of checking your plants every 1-2 weeks. Pinch off the top set of leaves and enjoy them!

freshly harvested basil.
You can harvest right below the first set of leaves and above those tiny leaves on the leaf node right above my thumb. This is called “pinching the tops.” The tiny leaves will keep growing and create two new branches.

How to Chiffonade Basil for Eating

Whether you grow your own basil or just bought some fresh basil from the grocery store, follow these simple steps to chiffonade your basil. It works with any type of basil, too!

  1. Stack 4-6 basil leaves of approximately the same size together. 
  2. Starting from one of the narrow ends, tightly but gently roll the basil leaves like a cigar.
  3. Use a sharp knife to cut very thin strips of basil. Trim the entire bundle of leaves.
  4. Gently lift the sliced basil to see the thin strands. Use to garnish pasta, add to sauces, sprinkle over pizza, and more.

How to Preserve Basil for the Winter

There are tons of wonderful ways to use fresh basil, but most gardeners are so overwhelmed with their harvests that they don’t always have time to test out creative recipes. Instead, they focus more on preserving basil to enjoy it later in the years. 

There are some great ways to preserve fresh basil, including:

  • Dehydrating basil (to make your own dried herbs for cooking!)
  • Freezing basil leaves in olive oil
  • Freezing fresh basil pesto in ice cube trays
  • Dehydrating basil in salt
  • Infusing syrups and cocktails

Even the most exhausted gardener will find time to sneak full leaves of basil into caprese salad, tomato basil sandwiches, and more. It adds the most incredible flavor to even the most simplistic recipes!

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I’ll share my favorite low-prep ways to preserve the harvest that you can do with any basic kitchen setup – no fancy equipment required!

FAQs

Does basil grow back after you cut it?

Typically, yes, unless you somehow cut way too much. Just take a look at the individual plants. If there are sets of double leaves growing further down on the stems, you can easily cut the first or second sets of leaves to enjoy. The smaller leaves will continue growing and then you’ll be able to trim again.

Should you remove flower buds from your basil plants?

Absolutely! Once the plant flowers, it wants to direct all its energy to growing seeds. That means no more leaves for you. Harvest your basil plants weekly and pluck off any flower buds with your fingers the second you see them!

Do you have to trim basil regularly?

No, it’s entirely optional. I’ve seen photos of traditional gardens in Italy where the gardeners let the basil plants grow to almost complete maturity. They pull the entire plants, flower buds and all, to make their homemade pesto. This method works well with really vigorous varieties, like Genovese basil. Here in the US (especially in damp, cool western Washington), I prefer to harvest my basil regularly to keep the plants healthy and strong.

Related Recipes

basil plant from grocery store about to be harvested.
basil chiffonade on a wooden cutting board.

How to Chiffonade Basil

Once you know how to chiffonade basil, you'll have the most perfect little strips of basil to add to pastas and other recipes! Plus, you can also chiffonade mint, kale, chard, or any other leafy green, too. It's a great skill to have!
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 5 minutes

Equipment

  • Cutting board
  • sharp chef’s knife

Ingredients
  

  • fresh basil

Instructions
 

  • Stack 4-6 basil leaves of approximately the same size together.
  • Starting from one of the narrow ends, tightly but gently roll the basil leaves like a cigar.
  • Use a sharp knife to cut very thin strips of basil. Try to make the cuts as even as possible.
  • Gently lift the sliced basil to separate the thin strands. Use to garnish pasta, add to sauces, sprinkle over pizza, and more

Notes

Be careful rolling too many leaves at once as they can move during slicing, and you can accidentally damage them by having to cut through so many layers.
Gently rinse and pat dry the leaves before rolling to clean them.
Use this method to chiffonade mint, kale, chard, and other greens as well!
Keyword chiffonade basil
Did you try this recipe?Be sure to leave a star rating!

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