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I'm typing this with a case of "pesto-finger" - the stubborn stains that take a few days to fully wash off my thumb and fingertips from hours of picking basil leaves (mostly after harvesting all the remaining basil in the face of a frost.) I always wonder (for a few days a year while I'm doing it) how basil is prepared (before the grinding in a pestle or food processor) both "traditionally" and/or in a large-scale or even commercial operation to make pesto, as I'm tediously picking leaves off of the stems in my annual home production. Is there a better way than tedious hand-picking?

My personal pesto has wandered fairly far from "pesto Genovese" but that really has no impact on this question, as it's still mostly basil.


Looking carefully at the picture Lars provides, it would appear (upon examining the picture at full scale) that the basil is being harvested fairly young (no flowers) and simply being cut off (you can see a sickle-bar type cutter at the base of the harvester) and pulled up (unfortunately the picture appears to be posed, with the harvester stopped and not actually harvesting, based on nothing on the belts nor coming out the chute.) This actually makes some sense - the stems at that point would be fairly tender and might not be objectionable when ground up. While it will take some discipline to finish off basil that could grow more (after years of trying to give it as long as possible and getting it right before frost), I'll have to try some this way next year. I might also try a side-by side taste comparison with some (of the same age) hand-picked (or fist-stripped) from the stems and processed, to see if there's any detriment form the young stems.

  • Maybe wear gloves? – moscafj Oct 18 '15 at 13:34
  • @moscafj I'm not concerned with the stains - I'm wondering if there's a more efficient method, and I can't see gloves improving efficiency any (though they would obviously be needed if hand-processing for commercial purposes.) – Ecnerwal Oct 18 '15 at 13:39
  • When you say 'off the stems', are you talking about the green stem that extends off of the leaf for about an inch (would be considered a 'rib' when dealing with other greens), or the more woody part that connects to the root mass? I only remove the woody parts, and I can't recall ever having your problem. (I didn't plant basil this year, though ... typically, I have 6-8 plants, and also do the 'last pesto batch before the freeze') – Joe Oct 18 '15 at 15:53
  • Are you doing this work in your garden? Because when it comes to the end-of-the-year leaf stripping, I tend to do it at night after I've gotten home (after hearing frost warnings on the news) ... so I cut the plants & bring them inside to strip. – Joe Oct 18 '15 at 16:26
  • The woody part. And I generally do this in the kitchen. – Ecnerwal Oct 18 '15 at 21:01
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The picture shows a basil harvester. The stems remain in the ground, as you can see on the right; those stems that get harvested are processed together with the leaves.

Basil harvesting

  • This makes my 2 gallon a year operation seem somewhat small. With a bit of digging: frostablog.de/produktion-und-anbau/… "Rhine Valley (near Worms). ... From the field to our factory is just a few minutes. To pass from harvest to final frozen basil usually less than 2 hours" – Wayfaring Stranger Oct 18 '15 at 23:15
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I mostly run my clenched fingers down the stem to break off leaves, rather than picking individually. It's much faster. The top bits with the little leaves/flowers do require a bit of hand plucking though.

If I were a commercial scale pesto producer, I think I'd probably pull the cut off plants bottom end first through a 18mm hole in a steel plate. That should strip most leaves. -That 18mm number is a guess, but I think somewhere near right. Might use two holes, a big one and a smaller one so as to get better recovery.

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