Classic Pesto Recipe photo by Taste of Home
Total Time
Prep/Total Time: 10 min.
The best way to celebrate fresh basil is to turn it into fresh pesto. We'll show you how in our pesto recipe, and we'll share our tips for choosing the right ingredients.

Updated: May 20, 2024

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of a fresh batch of pesto—except that exquisite first taste! In this classic pesto recipe, you can learn how to this flavorful, versatile sauce. And maybe you’ll get inspired to make your own variations, too!

What is pesto?

Pesto is a rustic Italian paste-meets-sauce. It’s made by grinding fresh basil leaves with other ingredients like garlic and cheese, then slowly adding olive oil to create a chunky, ground sauce.

Pesto originated in the Liguria region of Italy, where basil grows abundantly. The capital of Liguria is Genoa, and because of this, authentic pesto is sometimes referred to as pesto Genovese. The traditional ingredients are fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheese and olive oil. The name “pesto” is derived from “pestle,” the tool used with a mortar to hand-grind ingredients for the sauce.

Pesto Ingredients

  • Basil: Pesto is all about bold flavor, so use the brightest, most aromatic fresh basil you can find. This should be a cinch in the summer when basil is in season. Look for bundles at your go-to grocery store or farmers market. (Or, if a neighbor’s garden is overrun with basil, ask for a bunch!) The leaves should be bright green and plump, with no brown spots. If packaged basil leaves are your only option, choose one with no brown spots or withering.
  • Cheese: Aged Italian cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or fiore sardo are the best choices for pesto. Other choices include pecorino and Asiago cheeses, though these have a stronger flavor that will come through in your pesto. Wedges of plain Parmesan will also work fine. What’s most important is that you don’t use Parmesan “shake” cheese from a can! This brilliant sauce won’t be the same if made with imitation, shelf-stable cheese.
  • Garlic: Make sure the garlic you use is fresh—no garlic powder or jarred, minced garlic here. Shop for garlic bulbs that feel heavy for their size, with dry outer layers and no soft spots on the cloves or signs of sprouting.
  • Olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is the most typical choice for pesto. Since the flavors are so important in pesto, make sure your oil hasn’t turned rancid, which happens easily with bottles that have been in your pantry a while or stored improperly (yes, you can learn how to store olive oil the right way!). If it’s time to replace your oil, buy the best-quality olive oil you can afford.
  • Pine nuts: Also known as pignoli, pine nuts are small seeds from pine trees, used in both savory and sweet Italian foods. The ivory-colored nuts have a soft texture and a buttery flavor that’s enhanced by toasting. Pine nuts tend to be expensive because they’re more labor-intensive to harvest than other nuts. Toast pine nuts in a single layer in a skillet over medium heat, stirring and tossing the nuts for several minutes until they become fragrant. (Be careful not to burn them.) Let them cool before using.

Directions

Step 1: Chop the basil mixture

Put the basil leaves, grated cheese, garlic and salt in a food processor bowl. Cover and pulse until the ingredients are chopped, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

grated cheese, garlic and Basil leaves in a blender on a wooden tableTMB Studio

Editor’s Tip: Basil leaves should be washed and gently patted dry before starting.

Step 2: Add the toasted pine nuts

Pine nuts mixed with basil leaves mixture in a blenderTMB Studio

Add the pine nuts to the food processor. Pulse to chop and blend them in with everything else.

Step 3: Slowly add the olive oil

Overhead shot of gradually adding oil in a steady stream; white wooden background;TMB Studio

With the food processor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube or dispenser in the top of your food processor.

Editor’s Tip: Have the olive oil ready in a glass measuring cup or something else that’s easy to pour from. Keep adding the oil in a slow and steady stream to allow the ingredients to emulsify. Once all the oil is in, stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then blend it one more time.

Classic Pesto in a small jar on a wooden surface

Pesto Sauce Variations

  • Include other herbs: Other herby pesto variations are just as delicious as the basil version. Parsley can be used in place of some or all of the basil to make parsley pesto, or make the same swap with fragrant cilantro. Experiment with the extra herbs from your garden to make a pesto blend.
  • Add more greens: Greens like spinach, kale and arugula make amazing pesto and give you another way of preserving seasonal produce from the farmers market or CSA. Replace all of the basil in the recipe with greens, or blend them with the basil. We’ve got recipes for spinach pesto, arugula pesto and even garlic scape pesto.
  • Use different nuts: Since pine nuts are sometimes pricey or hard to find, try using other nuts in pesto, like walnuts or pecans. Toast the nuts briefly in a skillet to enhance the flavors. Chop harder nuts, like almonds and pecans, on a cutting board before adding them to the food processor. Or skip the nuts altogether, and make a delicious nut-free pesto.
  • Make vegan pesto: To make this a vegan pesto, you can simply omit the cheese. It will still have the flavor and intensity of the basil and garlic, plus the texture of the pine nuts. Or add nutritional yeast if you don’t want to sacrifice that umami cheese flavor. Different than baking yeast, nutritional yeast is a vitamin-packed food with a slightly nutty, slightly cheesy flavor. It’s a great way to add cheese flavor to dairy-free dishes. Add 1/4 cup nutritional yeast to your pesto ingredients, then add more to taste.
  • Ramp up the flavor: It’s easy to add more intensity and even spice to your pesto if you want. Add a pinch or two of black pepper or red pepper flakes. Add a splash of lemon juice or vinegar for a bit of acid to balance the rich sauce and enhance the other flavors. You can also increase the amount of basil you use in this recipe. Bump the amount of leaves up to 4 cups for the most flavorful, punchy and fragrant pesto you’ll ever make.
  • Look to your garden: Use your garden overflow (or pantry items) to create unique pesto variations. Sweet pea pesto is a springy recipe to keep in mind, while poblano pesto would be a welcome twist for people who love spicy foods. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

How to Use Homemade Pesto

Classic Pesto on noodles served in a large bowlTMB Studio

Pesto is a delectable sauce to toss with any kind of pasta, thick enough to cling to every noodle, elbow and twist. Try our garden pesto pasta salad or the simple and delicious warm pesto pasta.

You can serve pesto with burgers and meat, like in this creamy pesto chicken recipe. Or fold it into meat dishes like chicken pesto meatballs. Add pesto to all kinds of soups for a burst of basil flavor, like in this chicken gnocchi pesto soup.

Breakfast is fair game for pesto, too. It’s incredible in this creamy pesto bacon eggs benedict and in a prosciutto-pesto breakfast strata.

How to Store Pesto

Pesto can be refrigerated for up to five days. Pour your pesto into a small glass or plastic storage container. Add a thin layer of olive oil to the top, which will help prevent air from oxidizing the basil and turning the pesto brown. Cover the dish tightly.

How to Freeze Pesto

There are two options to freeze your pesto. You can pour your whole batch into a freezer-proof dish, leaving about an inch of space at the top for expansion. Pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top of the pesto, then seal the dish tightly. Place it upright in the freezer to keep the oil in place until it freezes.

You can also freeze pesto in ice cube trays so you can later easily grab a cube or two to toss into your recipes. Spoon the pesto into an ice cube tray, then cover it tightly. Freeze until the pesto is firm. Pop out the pesto cubes (you can run a little hot water over the back of the tray to loosen them) and store the cubes in a tightly sealed freezer bag for up to one year.

Pesto Recipe Tips

Classic Pesto served with noodles, placed on a wooden tableTMB Studio

How can you make vibrant and creamy pesto?

To make sure your pesto is creamy and vibrant, don’t make the mistake of overprocessing the ingredients. It’s best to use the pulse function, which uses short bursts of power to chop the basil leaves and process the ingredients without turning them to liquid or bruising the leaves. Once you begin adding the oil, you can let the food processor run on low speed to emulsify the sauce.

How can you create a more rustic texture in pesto?

Process the basil leaves in a few batches to have larger pieces of basil in your pesto and a more traditional texture. Pulse the food processor just a few times until the leaves are coarsely chopped, remove them, and repeat with the next batch.

Another way to get an authentic, rustic pesto (and a good workout) is to make the pesto entirely with a mortar and pestle. First, the pine nuts are ground down, then the basil leaves with salt. The cheese is pounded in next, followed by long pours of olive oil. This traditional method creates a thick and more textured pesto sauce.

Should you blanch the basil leaves when making pesto?

There are dueling opinions among cooks about whether or not to blanch basil leaves before turning them into pesto. When cut, basil leaves will start to oxidize and turn brown. However, if the leaves are blanched first (very briefly dunked in boiling water, then ice water), they will keep their bright green color. The downside is the added work and time to blanch the leaves. Also, some say that blanching diminishes the vibrant flavor of the basil.

If the pesto you’re making will be eaten quickly, you’re fine to skip blanching. For pesto that you’re planning to store or freeze for a while (or if you don’t mind a slightly toned-down flavor), you can blanch and dry your basil leaves before processing them.

Watch how to Make Classic Pesto

Classic Pesto

Prep Time 10 min
Yield 1-1/4 cup.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 garlic cloves, halved
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Directions

  1. Place basil, cheese, garlic and salt in a food processor; cover and pulse until chopped. Add nuts; cover and process until blended. While processing, gradually add oil in a steady stream. Store in an airtight container in the freezer up to 1 year.

Nutrition Facts

2 tablespoons: 161 calories, 17g fat (2g saturated fat), 3mg cholesterol, 132mg sodium, 2g carbohydrate (0 sugars, 0 fiber), 2g protein.

This versatile pesto boasts a perfect basil flavor. Pair it with pasta and you've got a classic Italian dinner. —Iola Egle, Bella Vista, Arkansas