Culinary Arts

What Is Basil Pesto? Easy Recipe and Tips for Making Perfect Pesto

Written by MasterClass

Feb 26, 2019 • 5 min read

Basil pesto, the iconic green sauce we slather on pasta and bruschetta, is both ancient and modern. A Latin poem from the year 25 CE describes pounding together herbs, cheese, oil, and vinegar, making pesto possibly the oldest sauce in European cuisine. Long beloved in Italy, basil pesto became popular in the U.S. in the ’70s, and soon evolved from a mortar-and-pestle-only affair into a shelf-stable grocery store product. But with the word pesto being used to describe all manner of herby green sauces, what is “real” pesto, and where did it come from?

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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.

The ingredients needed for basil pesto. shot from above.

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What Are Classic Pesto Ingredients?

Fresh basil pesto is traditionally made of:

  • Basil
  • Pine nuts
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Garlic

What Is Pesto Used For?

Pesto adds the intense flavors of fresh basil, raw garlic, and newly-pressed olive oil to cooked dishes. Since all three ingredients lose some of their flavor when heated, they’re left raw in pesto. By adding pesto to a finished dish, we can have it all—warm foods coated in bright, fresh flavor. Of course, pesto is also delicious with cold foods.

  • Pasta: Pesto works best with long, thin pastas like spaghetti, or those with ridges, like rigatoni. To serve with pasta, put pesto in a large bowl, add just-drained pasta, and thin the sauce out with some reserved pasta water if needed.
  • Pizza: Swirl pesto on top of prosciutto or potato pizza just after it comes out of the oven.
  • Zoodles: Zucchini noodles and other gluten-free pasta substitutes go great with pesto. Serve as you would pasta.
  • Vegetables: Try pesto drizzled over sliced ripe tomatoes, or as a dip for raw or blanched veggies.
  • Chicken: Pesto is a traditional accompaniment to poultry and turns a plain chicken breast into a flavorful meal.
  • Soup: Pesto adds freshness and creaminess to soup. Its a traditional addition to Genoese minestrone and works well as a garnish for almost any vegetable soup.
  • Gnocchi: Bright pesto balances hearty potato gnocchi. Try it with Chef Thomas Keller’s easy homemade gnocchi recipe.
  • Sandwiches: Pesto is a traditional topper for bruschetta, but it also makes a great spread for any type of sandwich.
  • Pasta salad: Try pesto on a cold pasta salad, or a grain salad of brown rice, quinoa, or farro.
Fresh basil pesto in a mortar and pestle

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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
  • 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
  • Other hard, salty cheeses

What’s the Difference Between Pesto, Pistou, and Picada?

There are many ways of making an herby, garlicky paste bound by nuts and/or olive oil, some of which have become famous in their own right.

  • 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.

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!

Can You Make Pesto Without Cheese?

To make vegan pesto, replace the parmesan in the below recipe with 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast. Or try picada!

Tips for Making Perfect Pesto

  • 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!)
A spoonful and jar of fresh basil pesto

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Easy Traditional Pesto Recipe

Makes
1 1/2 cups
Total Time
15 min
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves (from about 2 bunches)
  • Salt
  • 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.