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Homemade Pesto is an Italian classic! This simple recipe combines fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and cheese into a fresh and fantastic sauce bursting with flavor.
I absolutely love Pesto – tossed with pasta, on pizza, added as flavoring to a sauce, or even smeared onto corn on the cob instead of butter! I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve even been caught eating pesto straight out of the jar with a spoon – I just love it so much!
Today we’re sharing our go-to pesto recipe. It’s the perfect blend of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and cheeses. This is a thick and substantive sauce – not overly oily – and we think this is one of the best pesto recipes around!
What is Pesto?
Pesto is a sauce that originated in the city of Genoa, in northern Italy. The name is derived from the Genoese word pestare, which means to pound, to crush – a reference to the original method of preparation for this sauce with a marble mortar and wooden pestle. (You can still make it that way, but a food processor makes things much quicker and easier.)
Most of the time, if you see the word ‘pesto’ on the menu at an Italian restaurant, it refers to a classic Pesto alla Genevese which is specifically pesto made with fresh basil. But lots of cooks are getting more creative these days, making pesto with other greens or other main ingredients. (See our Tuscan Kale pesto recipe here!)
Chef’s Tip –
Since there are only a few simple ingredients in this recipe, don’t skimp on quality. Buy the freshest basil and garlic you can, and choose quality extra virgin olive oil and aged cheeses.
Key Ingredients and Substitutions
- Fresh basil – This recipe is best with freshly-picked basil right from the garden, and you simply can’t substitute dried or frozen. Never add the stems – snip the leaves from the stem with some kitchen scissors before measuring the amount of leaves for your recipe. (I’ve read that the smaller leaves are better to use and sweeter, but I honestly can’t taste much of a difference.)
- Garlic – Fresh, peeled garlic is the only option. Please don’t use jarred, minced garlic.
- Pine nuts – Pine nuts are traditional and give this pesto a mellow, nutty flavor. In a pinch, however, this pesto recipe is still very good made with walnuts.
- Extra virgin olive oil – Don’t skimp here either. Use an extra virgin olive oil for the best depth of flavor.
- Parmesan and Romano cheeses – We like a blend of the two cheeses in this pesto recipe, but you can also use all Parmesan if you prefer.
- Salt and Pepper – Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper are preferred over the finer table salt and pre-ground black pepper.
Chef’s Tip –
Before you begin to mix up the pesto, have all of your ingredients measured out and assembled. (See Cook Like a Pro with Mise en Place.) Once you start chopping the basil, it will begin to lose its vivid green color and turn brown as it oxidizes in the air. Mix quickly, then immediately place your pesto in a jar to minimize the amount that is exposed to the air. (See below for other tips and tricks.)
How do I make pesto? (It’s easy!)
1. Place clean, dried basil leaves in the bowl of a food processor along with peeled, fresh garlic and pine nuts.
2. Pulse until the basil, garlic and nuts are uniformly chopped. (We like a slightly chunky pesto so don’t over-chop.)
3. With the motor running, drizzle olive oil into the bowl to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, to incorporate any basil or nuts stuck to the side.
4. Add grated cheeses, plus salt and pepper to the bowl of the food processor.
5. Pulse again to mix together. (Again, don’t over process unless you’d like a very smooth pesto.)
Serve over hot pasta, slather on corn on the cob, or use in your favorite recipes.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I stop my pesto from turning brown? Pesto will turn brown as the chopped basil starts to oxidize when it hits the air. To prevent this from happening, work quickly as you make it, then cover the finished sauce with a piece of plastic wrapped, pressed down against the top of the pesto. Instead, some people also like to pour a half inch of oil over the top of the pesto – but then you’ll have to stir in the extra oil as you go to use it. We prefer the plastic wrap method because you won’t have to continue to add excess oil each time you have leftovers.
How long can I store pesto? Follow the steps above, then store fresh pesto in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Can I freeze pesto? Yes – it freezes very well. In fact – when we have more garden basil than we know what do to with, we mix up a batch and freeze it in small zipper-seal bags for use after the summer growing season. When you freeze it in smaller portions, you can thaw amounts as you need them for recipes.
How are pine nuts harvested? When Jack and I went to Italy for our honeymoon (years ago!), we saw pine nut trees for the first time, and they were unlike any other tree we had seen before! They have a tall, skinny trunk and the evergreen needles were at the very top in almost like a pom-pom formation. (Picture the trees in The Lorax movie!) During the harvest season, the trees are shaken so that the pine cones fall from the top of the tree to the ground, and then the nuts are harvested for consumption.
This post originally appeared on A Family Feast in April 2013. Recipe adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook.
You may enjoy these recipes:
- Chicken Bellagio
- Spinach Pesto Pinwheels
- Chicken Lasagna with Pesto Cream Sauce
- Pesto Chicken over Sautéed Cannellini Beans
- Goat Cheese, Pesto and Sun-Dried Tomato Terrine
2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and patted dry
4 good-sized garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 cup pine nuts (if pine nuts are not available, substitute with walnuts)
1 cup high quality olive oil
1 cup freshly grated imported Parmesan Reggiano
¼ cup freshly grated imported Romano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a food processor, add basil, garlic and pine nuts and process until uniformly chopped.
- With motor running add olive oil in a drizzle. Open the lid and scrape down the sides then turn motor back on to mix.
- Pour into a bowl and hand mix in both cheeses and salt and pepper to taste.
- Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week. This pesto may also be frozen – we put it in small zipper seal food storage bags and flatten to remove all the air from the bag before sealing and freezing.
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Pesto will lose its vivid green color and turn brownish when exposed to air but there are a few tricks to prevent that from happening when storing pesto in the fridge. First, we try to store it in a taller, narrow container or jar to minimize the pesto’s exposure to air. Pouring a thin layer of olive oil over the top of the pesto before closing the lid will also work, but we find that eventually makes the pesto overly-oily as it is mixed in, if you are using small amounts out of the jar. As an alternative, we have found that placing a piece of plastic food wrap directly against the top of the pesto before placing the lid on the jar also works well and avoids the ‘overly-oily’ problem.