Best Basil Pesto

The best way to use up a boatload of fresh basil? Pesto, of course! Here’s our best basil pesto recipe, made the classic Italian way.

Basil pesto

Oh hello! Got a load of fresh basil? Could we bend your ear to suggest the best use? Classic basil pesto. Is there anything better? It’s savory, garlicky, creamy, peppery, and you can slather a smear on anything. We use it on pasta to take it from plain to magnificent, and it absolutely makes our Pesto Pizza. Alex and I often buy it in the winter, but we go for homemade basil pesto in the summer when our basil plant has grown into a massive bush. If you’re never made basil pesto at home: now is the time! Keep reading for how to do it.

What is basil pesto?

Basil pesto is a sauce that originates in Italy (the city of Genoa, more specifically). The word pesto comes from an Italian word that means “pounded” or “crushed”. A pesto can refer to any type of sauce that is crushed, but pesto alla genovese, the version of pesto from Genoa, is the most popular version. The typical ingredients in basil pesto are:

  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Pine nuts
  • Garlic
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
How to make basil pesto

How to make basil pesto

Basil pesto is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle, to grind the ingredients together. You can also make pesto in a blender or food processor. You’ll simply blend up all ingredients, then add the olive oil until the sauce becomes creamy.

Our version of basil pesto has a few unique features. First of all, pine nuts are traditional in basil pesto, but they can be pretty expensive here in the US. In our pesto you can use cashews and walnuts as a substitute; we’ve tested and both turn out fabulously! You can use any type of nut you prefer. My favorite is with pine nuts because it’s super classico, but the cashew version is just as good and we always have cashews around. Another feature we added to our basil pesto is a squeeze of lemon juice. It helps to brighten the flavors and takes it to a while new level.

Here’s how to make basil pesto:

  • Toast the nuts for a few minutes in a dry skillet, stirring constantly, until fragrant.
  • Place the nuts, Parmesan cheese, and garlic in a food processor and blend until finely chopped.
  • Add fresh basil leaves, lemon juice and salt. Start the food processor and add the olive oil in a steady stream. Add a bit more olive oil to bring to the desired consistency, if necessary.
Basil pesto

Pesto variations

There are many ways to change up pesto! Here are a few variations on basil pesto for you:

  • Vegan Cashew Pesto — want pesto without cheese? This vegan pesto uses a fancy trick to substitute a cheesy flavor.
  • Easy Vegan Pesto — here’s another cheese free pesto variation: this one uses nutritional yeast to add cheesy flavor.
  • Walnut Pesto with Basil — here’s a version of classic basil pesto sauce with walnuts.

How to freeze pesto

Here’s an important note! The best way to store homemade pesto, if you’re not going to eat it all at once, is to freeze it. Here’s how to freeze basil pesto:

  • Pour the pesto into an ice cube tray and pop in the freezer.
  • Once frozen, remove the cubes and place them in a freezer safe sealed container.
  • When you’re ready to eat, you can pop out small servings of pesto. Place them in a container and allow to come to room temperature on the counter or in the refrigerator.
How to grow herbs

Growing and storing basil

Ever grown basil? Alex and I are passionate supporters of the cause of growing basil: we often buy friends basil plants because it’s such a cooking game changer! Basil is easy to grow at home: it’s very hardy as long as you place it in full sun! Basil is our top herb to grow, because it adds an aromatic flavor to such a wide variety of recipes. If you’re looking to grow your own basil plant, we have a step by step guide: How to Grow Basil.

We also have a fantastic tip for storing fresh basil. When you harvest branches of your basil plant and bring them inside, they’ll wilt after about an hour unless you follow this trick! Place a little water in the bottom of a large ball jar, then place the stems inside, cut side down. Add the top and it will stay fresh for 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator! More information is here: How to Store Basil.

How to store herbs
How to store fresh basil? In a canning jar

Best pesto recipes

Once you’ve made your basil pesto: what to do with it? There are thousands (or maybe millions?) of recipes for how to use basil pesto online and in cookbooks. To help you sort through the clutter, here are our absolute favorite ways:

Basil pesto sauce

Looking for a food processor?

You’ll need a food processor for this pizza dough recipe! Here’s the one we recommend. You’ll need a large sized food processor to accommodate this batch.

This basil pesto recipe is…

Vegetarian and gluten free. For vegan, plant-based, and dairy-free, use Vegan Pesto.

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Basil pesto

Best Basil Pesto


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (6 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 5 minutes
  • Yield: Heaping 1 cup (about 18 tablespoons) 1x

Description

The best way to use up a boatload of fresh basil? Pesto, of course! Here’s our best basil pesto recipe, made the classic Italian way. 


Scale

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup raw unsalted pine nuts, cashews, or walnuts*
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 medium garlic cloves
  • 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, plus additional as needed

Instructions

  1. In a small dry skillet, toast the nuts over medium high heat, stirring constantly, for about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the nuts to a bowl and allow them to cool slightly. (This step is optional, but brings out a more robust flavor in the nuts.)
  2. In food processor**, combine the nuts, cheese, and peeled garlic. Process until finely ground, 20 to 30 seconds.
  3. Add the basil, lemon juice and kosher salt. Turn on the food processor and gradually pour in the olive oil. Once combined, turn off the food processor. Blend in a bit more olive oil if desired, to achieve a looser texture. Stores for about 1 week in the refrigerator and several months frozen.

Notes

*Pine nuts are traditional, but can be expensive. We’ve tested both cashews and walnuts and they have great flavor. Since we often have these stocked in our pantry, we use these variations more often than pine nuts. 

**You also can do the same method using a mortar and pestle, adding the basil leaves gradually and crushing them against the sides of the mortar. 

  • Category: Sauce
  • Method: Blended
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: Basil pesto, basil pesto recipe, Pesto recipe, Pesto

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

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