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What Is Pesto?
True pesto is made from fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and cheese pounded together into a thick, green paste. (The word pesto means “pounded” in Italian.) Pesto is generally accepted to be a Ligurian invention, so much so that classic pesto is also called pesto Genovese, after Genoa, the capital of the northwestern coastal region of Italy.
Liguria is famous for its buttery-sweet olive oil, and for its basil, a mildly spicy variety with a clove-like aroma. Pesto was made by crushing these aromatic ingredients together with a mortar and pestle for hundreds of years. Nowadays, it’s far more common to use a blender or food processor to make homemade pesto.
What Is the Difference Between Pesto, Pistou, and Picada?
There are many ways of making an herby, garlicky condiment paste bound by nuts and/or olive oil, some of which have become famous in their own right. Both of these have a relatively quick prep time.
- Pistou. The Provençal version of pesto, pistou contains basil, garlic, and olive oil. It’s dolloped on soupe au pistou, the Provençal soup of white beans and vegetables. The lack of nuts and cheese makes pistou a good pesto alternative for those with nut or dairy allergies. Pistou is more intensely garlicky and less creamy than pesto.
- Picada. Like a Catalan parsley pesto without the cheese, picada contains blanched peeled almonds (sometimes toasted) and/or hazelnuts or pine nuts; garlic; flat-leaf parsley; and olive oil. Other common additions include black pepper, bread (soaked in milk or vinegar and/or fried), roasted chili peppers, and paprika.
Common Pesto Substitutions
Pesto can be made of any combination of herbs, cheeses, and nuts. Experiment with the following for interesting flavor combinations.
- For pine nuts, substitute: walnuts; hazelnuts; almonds; pistachios; pecans; sunflower seeds; and macadamia nuts.
- For basil, substitute: arugula; parsley; spinach; sorrel; baby chard; sage; marjoram; cilantro; mint; carrot tops; blanched, drained and cooled kale or chard.
- For parmesan, substitute: Pecorino Romano; Asiago; Aged manchego; or other hard, salty cheeses.
Can You Make Pesto Without Nuts?
Although pine nuts are technically a seed and not a nut, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommends those with nut allergies avoid pine nuts. To make nut-free pesto, follow the recipe below, substituting raw, shelled sunflower seeds for the pine nuts. Or try pistou!
Alternatively, Chef Massimo Bottura’s mint-basil pesto recipe does not contain nuts.
6 Tips for Making Perfect Pesto
Follow these tips to learn how to make pesto right every time.
- Always use fresh basil leaves to make pesto. Dried basil tastes completely different than the fresh stuff. Also, fresh basil leaves contain their own moisture in the form of both water and natural oils, which contributes to pesto’s creaminess.
- Toast the nuts. Many recipes toast pine nuts to add a rich, roasted flavor to pesto. But it’s also perfectly acceptable to leave them raw. Using raw pine nuts saves some time vis à vis toasting and cooling, and it also preserves their sweetness.
- Be gentle with the basil leaves. Heat from the blender or food processor, or over-chopping, can cause basil to oxidize and turn brown. Add the leaves last, and be careful not to over-process.
- Add a pinch of salt. Adding salt to the basil helps break down the leaves while pounding or blending.
- Add citrus. Though not a traditional pesto ingredient, lemon juice and/or zest can help brighten up a lackluster pesto.
- Store leftover pesto in the fridge, covered in a layer of olive oil. For longer-term storage, freeze pesto in ice cube trays and cover with plastic wrap. (Pesto won’t retain its beautiful bright green color after defrosting, but it’s a good trick when you’re overloaded with basil in the summer!)
Easy Traditional Pesto Recipe
Makes1 1/2 cups
Prep Time5 min
Total Time10 min
Cook Time5 min
- ½ cup pine nuts
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves (from about 2 bunches)
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese, finely grated
- In a food processor or blender, pulse pine nuts until a smooth paste forms.
- Add the garlic and pulse until smooth and fully incorporated.
- Add the basil and a pinch of salt and pulse a few times, until the leaves break down and a bright green paste forms.
- Remove from blender and stir in cheese and oil.
- Add salt to taste.
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