Culinary Arts

What Is Arugula? Plus Easy Arugula Pesto Recipe

Written by MasterClass

May 20, 2019 • 3 min read

Peppery arugula—also known as rocket—gives a bold flavor despite its delicate leafy appearance. It has a distinctive flavor that makes everything delicious: as a nutritious base for salad, piled onto a freshly baked pizza, or made into pesto.


What Is Arugula?

Arugula (Eruca sativa), also known as garden rocket, roquette, or rucola, is an edible plant in the brassica family along with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and collard greens. Originally from the Mediterranean, the peppery leafy green has long been a staple in Italian and French cuisine. Arugula has become popular in the United States over the last few decades and is now commonly used as salad greens.

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How Long Does It Take to Grow Arugula?

Fresh rocket truly lives up to its name: it germinates quickly and grows fast. Rocket leaves are ready to eat just one month after germination.

What Does Arugula Taste Like?

Fresh arugula leaves have a distinctive spicy kick that will turn up the flavors in your salads, pastas, sandwiches, and sauces. The flavor can be bright, tart, peppery, and slightly bitter, depending on its maturity. You’ll find that baby arugula is delicate and mild, while mature arugula is much spicier. Mature arugula seeds are also edible and similar in flavor to radish seed pods.

If your arugula is too spicy on its own, try making your own spring mix of leafy greens by combining it with baby romaine, baby spinach, mizuna, tatsoi, and frisée.

Health Benefits of Arugula

Arugula is low in sugar, calories, carbohydrates, and fat, and rich in nutrients including, vitamin C, vitamin B, vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, potassium, and folate. These leafy green vegetables are full of beta-carotene and antioxidants, which boost the immune system and may promote eye and bone health. Adding more of these leafy greens to your diet is an easy way to encourage weight loss due to its low-calorie count.

What Is the Difference Between Arugula and Spinach?

While arugula and spinach are both green leaves that share similarities in the way they are used in culinary applications, there are some big differences between the two. The arugula leaf is elongated with ridges, while spinach leaves are wide and oval shaped.

Arugula has a peppery flavor, while spinach tastes mild and vegetal. When cooking with spinach, you’ll find it is thicker than arugula, therefore it holds up better over heat. Arugula is best when used raw or wilted, added towards the end of the cooking process.

5 Recipe Ideas Using Arugula

  1. Arugula Salad with Parmesan. Arugula salad with Parmesan is a classic Italian dish. Peppery arugula balances perfectly with tart fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, black pepper, and thin, nutty shavings of Parmesan to top it off. This salad works well as a side dish to accompany steak or grilled chicken.
  2. Pesto. A flavorful substitute for classic basil pesto, arugula pesto is a great use for those with a surplus of greens.
  3. Pizza topping. In Italy, arugula is often used raw as a pizza topping to give brightness to the dish. It is added to a pizzas right before the pizza comes out of the oven or just after baking. Try combining it with prosciutto or fresh heirloom tomatoes.
  4. Straccetti. Straccetti is a Roman dish that consists of thinly sliced beef, raw arugula, and Parmesan cheese.
  5. Rucolino. Rucolino is a sweet, peppery digestive alcohol made from arugula. This liqueur is a local specialty on the island of Ischia and enjoyed at the end of a meal.

Easy Arugula Pesto Recipe

Prep Time
5 min
Total Time
10 min
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 cups arugula, tightly packed
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
  1. Add the garlic cloves and pine nuts to a food processor, blend until finely ground.
  2. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the arugula and salt. Pulse until the arugula is finely chopped.
  3. Turn on the machine and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Process until the mixture is smooth.
  4. Stir in the Parmesan cheese. Eat right away or freeze in ice cube trays for later use. Serve over pasta, baked potatoes, or as a dip with bread.