Basil jelly: a tasty way to preserve a favorite flavor

J. H. Osborne • Oct 11, 2019 at 6:30 PM

Here’s another recipe I’ve been making for more than 20 years that still raises eyebrows when I first mention it to friends — or strangers — I’m about to make a batch: basil jelly.

On the whole, I know this isn’t that rare of a delicacy because I’ve seen many versions of recipes for basil jelly. I’ve also seen numerous fruit jam recipes that call for a little added basil. At Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion last month I parched my thirst with a watermelon-basil slushie. Next year I’m going to experiment with watermelon-basil jelly.

But for now, I’ve stuck to my standard basil jelly, which I make with either purple basil or regular green basil. I’m fortunate enough to have a good friend in Asheville who is a professional gardener (he worked at Biltmore Estate for several years and was even featured as a member of the Biltmore floral team on an HGTV special.) He often uses herbs as ornamental components of his home garden. A couple of weeks ago I visited Asheville and dropped by his house just in time to get a large bundle of freshly picked purple basil. Unlike regular green basil, the purple basil produces a richly-colored jelly. It is a deep bright red, with no added food coloring. I thought his bundle would be all the basil I’d need for jelly this year. And truth be told, it was.

But last Saturday I took Mom to the Kingsport Farmers Market and there was a booth with beautiful basil that also was intensely aromatic. And it was on sale. The vendor was Onks Greenhouse, a 25-year-old business located in Gray and owned by Paul Onks. Tending the booth was Loretta Carter, a joy to talk with and a good deal maker. I told her I was considering buying some of the basil to make jelly. She said that sounded interesting and as I paid for my purchase she said maybe I could bring her the recipe sometime. Mom and I rode out to Gray to visit Onks Greenhouse yesterday and met Mr. Onks. He hadn’t heard of basil jelly before, either and asked what we do with it.

Most of my family and others who’ve found basil jelly a good thing simply use it as a topping for cream cheese and crackers. I sometimes spread it on ham and cheese sandwiches, and have even paired it with bacon on toast with tomato. Basil jelly has been a part of my canning lineup for more than 20 years. I know this because my paternal grandmother liked it and she’s been gone from this world since 1997. In the last year or two of her life many relatives came to visit and one of my cousins fell in love with my basil jelly. She preferred it just on buttered toast for breakfast (but said she’d eat it straight from the jar if no one was looking).

So, now, Mom and I have both “red” and “green” basil jelly “put up” for the winter. I put the colors in quotations marks because each is a bit misleading: the red jelly comes from the purple basil, and is the natural color that results from steeping the leaves (there is no food coloring used); and the green jelly comes from the green basil, the leaves of which, when steeped, produce a light yellowish liquid (so for the jelly to be colorful requires a few drops of green food coloring).

Onks said Carter will be back at the Kingsport Farmers Market on Saturday and she’s likely to have basil.

Here’s the recipe:

• Remove basil leaves from stems and measure two cups, packed tight. Wash gently, drain, and pat dry.

• “Bruise” the leaves (mash lightly with the back of a wooden spoon or just rub small handfuls together) and place them in a deep cook pot.

• Cover with four cups of water and bring to a boil. Once boiling point is reached, cover pot and remove from heat. Set aside, allowing the leaves to steep for at least 20 minutes.

• Drain the liquid through a small-screened sieve to remove the leaves. I double-strain mine.

• Measure three cups of the liquid. Add ⅓ cup white vinegar and two tablespoons lemon juice. If you are using green basil and want the bright green color, add several drops of green food coloring.

• Bring the mixture to a boil. Add six cups of sugar all at once (pre-measure it and have it ready). Return to a full rolling boil. Quickly add two 3 ounce pouches of liquid pectin. Return to a rolling boil. Boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam from surface and ladle into sterilized canning jars. Seal with flat lids and rings and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to sit undisturbed for several hours.

This recipe yields seven half-pint jars of jelly.