How to Make Pesto
Perk up your pasta, sandwiches and appetizers with this homemade pesto sauce recipe. Traditionally, pesto (Italian for "pounded") is made by grinding with a mortar and pestle, but a food processor or blender will give you speedier results. It's easy to learn how to make pesto. So read on, then turn five simple ingredients—basil, nuts, garlic, olive oil and cheese—into homemade pesto.
By Dana Meredith, Associate Editor, and Nicholas Iverson, Lead Test Cook
Top Pesto Recipe Tips:
- Blanching the basil leaves help preserve their bright color and texture.
- Pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts, but for a more budget-friendly alternative and a different flavor, try walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds or pecans.
- If you desire a more even texture for your pesto sauce, chop the basil before adding it to the food processor or blender.
- Always start with a small amount of garlic and add more to taste.
- If the taste of basil is too strong for you, mellow your pesto with a recipe that combines parsley and basil.
How to Make Pesto Sauce
This recipe for homemade pesto sauce is easy and quick to make in a food processor or blender. Just a few ingredients and five simple steps add up to totally perfect pesto.
1. Prepare the basil
Preserve basil's gorgeous green color by blanching it first. Drop the basil in lightly salted boiling water for 15—20 seconds; immerse immediately in cold water, then dry between paper towels. If you want a more even texture, chop the basil before you add it to the food processor. Stack several leaves on top of each other and roll into a tight tube. Slice the leaves widthwise into narrow pieces to create long strips.
2. Toast the nuts
Toasting nuts enhances their flavor. Arrange the nuts in a single layer in a shallow pan and bake at 350 degrees for 5–10 minutes, or cook in a skillet over low heat, tossing until slightly browned. Watch carefully—nuts can go from brown to burned very quickly.
3. Combine the ingredients
Add basil, garlic and nuts to food processor or blender; process until well-blended.
4. Add the olive oil
Continue processing while gradually adding the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, allowing the mixture to emulsify.
5. Add the cheese
Grate the cheese using the fine edge of a box grater or a Microplane, then add the cheese to the food processer and pulse to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Know Your Ingredients:
Basil is an aromatic herb available in many varieties. Sweet basil is the type most commonly found in supermarkets and used in pesto, but experiment with different varieties such as purple or lemon basil to find the flavor you like best.
Ideally, pesto is made with Parmigiano-Reggiano and fiore sardo cheeses, but if these aren't available, you can substitute a hard, salty cheese like Pecorino Romano or Asiago. Keep in mind that Pecorino Romano is a bit saltier, sharper and tangier than the other cheeses, which will alter the flavor slightly.
Garlic is an edible bulb (or "head") made up of individual sections, or cloves, encased in a papery membrane. The two main varieties are hardneck and softneck; the latter is the variety most commonly found in stores. Don't mistake elephant garlic—not a true garlic, but more closely related to the leek—for regular garlic. It is much milder, almost bland in flavor. When purchasing garlic, choose bulbs that are firm and plump with dry skins. Unbroken bulbs can keep for up to eight weeks in a cool, dark place with good air circulation. After removal from the bulb, individual cloves will keep for 3–10 days.
Olive oil is graded by acidity, from extra-virgin to virgin to standard (previously called pure). Use the one that best suits your taste.
Also known as pignolia or pinon, the pine nut is the small seed from one of several pine tree varieties. They are small, elongated, ivory-colored nuts with a soft texture and buttery flavor. Pine nuts are frequently used in Italian dishes and are often toasted to enhance their flavor.
How to store pesto
Pesto will turn brown with prolonged exposure to air—not very appealing. Avoid this by storing the sauce in a narrow jar and pressing plastic wrap directly onto the pesto's surface. Seal it up tightly, and it will keep in the refrigerator up to five days.
To freeze pesto, leave ¾ in. of space at the top of the container, coat the surface of the sauce with a thin layer of oil to prevent browning, and seal tightly. You can also freeze pesto in ice cube trays, then transfer to a resealable plastic bag and store in the freezer for up to three months. Hungry for pesto? Just pop out a few cubes and let them thaw to add zip to your favorite dish.
6 ways to use leftover pesto sauce:
Whether you make it fresh or grab stored basil pesto from the freezer, here are a few clever ways to use this versatile sauce.
- Spread pesto on a pizza crust in place of tomato sauce when making homemade pizza.
- Swirl into mashed potatoes just before serving.
- Mix with eggs to make a tasty omelet or scramble.
- Spread onto crostini and top with chopped tomatoes for an easy appetizer.
- Add pesto to risotto in the last few minutes of cooking to boost flavor.
- Hollow out cherry tomatoes and fill them with pesto sauce for bite-sized treats.
Homemade Pesto Sauce Variations
Ready to get creative? Change up basic basil pesto with peppers and olives.
Place 2 cooked, seeded poblano peppers and 1 cooked jalapeno pepper in food processor; cover and pulse until smooth. Add 1/4 cup sliced almonds and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese; cover and process until blended. While processing, gradually add 1/2 cup olive oil in a steady stream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Black & Green Olive Pesto
In a food processor, combine 1 cup each of black and pimento-stuffed green olives with 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 2 garlic cloves and 2–3 tablespoons olive oil. Pulse until finely chopped.