It’s hot outside, so let’s to talk about basil pesto! Have you made it yet? Pesto is one of my absolute favorite, ultra-flavorful sauces, and it seems way fancier than it actually is. The best pesto tastes super fresh, herbal, nutty, garlicky and luxurious.
Homemade pesto is infinitely more tasty than the jarred varieties, and it’s very easy to make if you have a food processor or blender. You can serve pesto on pasta or zucchini noodles, pizza, sandwiches and much more.
Traditional pesto alla genovese is made simply with basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, garlic, salt and olive oil. You’ll see below that I often change up the nuts and add a squeeze of lemon juice.
Pesto originated in Liguria, Italy, where pesto is made in a mortar and pestle. (In fact, “pestâ” means “to pound.”) I don’t have the patience to crush basil by hand, one handful at a time. So, I recommend using your food processor.
Surprisingly, Kenji from Serious Eats says that if you freeze and thaw the basil leaves first, the food processor makes even better pesto. I haven’t tried yet, but I’m intrigued.
Watch How to Make Pesto
Basil pesto ingredients breakdown:
Basil leaves: Pesto is the perfect use for your summer garden basil surplus (grown-up Kate will have a garden someday). If you don’t have a garden yet, my favorite sources for affordable fresh basil in large quantities is the farmers’ market, Trader Joe’s, or those little basil plants (“living basil” or potted) from grocery stores.
Keep in mind that Kenji says you can use frozen basil leaves. If you ever have basil leaves going bad—rinse, dry, and put them in a freezer bag for future pesto!
Pine nuts or other nuts/seeds: Pine nuts are the traditional choice (did you know they’re actually pine cone seeds?). Pine nuts are tender, buttery and high in fat, so they yield smoother, silkier pesto. On the downside, they’re prohibitively expensive, and stores seem to have low turn-over for them so they’re often rancid by the time you buy them. Last but not least, the less expensive pine nuts from a specific Chinese pine variety can leave you with pine mouth, or a bitter taste in your mouth for weeks. Horrors!
So, I typically use raw almonds, walnuts, pecans or pepitas instead. Almonds are the most neutral of the bunch, so I used them for the pesto you see here. They’re all delicious in their own way, though. I typically toast the nuts first to really bring out their flavor and add an extra-savory edge to the pesto.
Parmesan: Parmesan is salty and creamy, and tones down the anise flavor of the basil. You can use Pecorino Romano for a more prominent cheesy flavor. Technically, Parmesans usually are not vegetarian (they contain animal rennet), but Whole Foods and BelGioioso offer vegetarian varieties.
If you’re vegan or dairy free, you can use a smaller amount of nutritional yeast instead. Sometimes, if I’m in the mood for extra-bold pesto, I just leave it out altogether.
Garlic: Garlic is a traditional component that livens up the pesto with aromatics and makes it taste a whole lot more interesting. Don’t skip it.
Lemon juice: I always add a bit of lemon juice to my pesto to brighten up the flavor without adding more salt. I think you’ll like it!
Salt: Salt amps up all the other flavors and reduces the bitterness of the basil.
Extra-virgin olive oil: Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest quality and comes from the first pressing of the olives. My favorite brands are California Olive Ranch and Trader Joe’s Kalamata olive oil.
How to toss pesto with pasta:
Generally speaking, the best pasta shapes for pesto are thin spaghetti or angel hair, twisted shapes like fusilli and bow-ties.
Before you drain your pasta, place a liquid measuring cup in the sink. Then, pour about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water into the measuring cup before you drain off the rest of the water. That pasta cooking water is pure gold—it contains starches that create a creamy emulsion and help attach the sauce to the pasta.
For most other pasta sauces, you want to toss it all together over low heat. You don’t want to cook the raw basil in your pesto, though, so toss them together off the heat. If you’re curious, I used roughly 1/3 cup reserved pasta cooking water for 1/2 pound of spaghetti.
- Author: Cookie and Kate
- Prep Time: 15 mins
- Total Time: 15 mins
- Yield: 1 cup
- Category: Sauce
- Cuisine: Italian
Homemade basil pesto is so easy to make! Learn how to make basil pesto with this recipe, plus learn how to properly toss it with pasta, and freeze leftovers. Recipe yields 1 cup pesto, which is enough to toss with about 12 ounces of pasta.
- ⅓ cup raw pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans or pepitas
- 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves (about 3 ounces or 2 large bunches)
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- (Optional) Toast the nuts or seeds for extra flavor: In a medium skillet, toast the nuts/seeds over medium heat, stirring frequently (don’t let them burn!), until nice and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour them into a bowl to cool for a few minutes.
- To make the pesto, combine the basil, cooled nuts/seeds, Parmesan, lemon juice, garlic and salt in a food processor or blender. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Continue processing until the mixture is well blended but still has some texture, pausing to scrape down the sides as necessary.
- Taste, and adjust if necessary. Add a pinch of salt if the basil tastes too bitter or the pesto needs more zing. Add more Parmesan if you’d like a creamier/cheesier pesto. If desired, you can thin out the pesto with more olive oil. (Consider, however, that if you’re serving the pesto on pasta, you can thin it with small splashes of reserved pasta cooking water to bring it all together.)
- Store leftover pesto in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 week. You can also freeze pesto—my favorite way is in an ice cube try. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag, then you can thaw only as much as you need later.
Make it dairy free/vegan: Replace the Parmesan with 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast.
Make it nut free: Use pine nuts, pepitas or sunflower seeds. (Pine nuts are technically seeds, but if you’re allergic to nuts, there’s a chance you’ll be allergic to pine nuts, too.)
Parmesan note: Most Parmesans are not technically vegetarian (they contain animal rennet), but Whole Foods 365 and BelGioioso brands offer vegetarian Parmesan cheese.