Pesto is one of the most versatile condiments around. From classic Italian preparations (cue the basil and pine nuts) to more unconventional recipes (hello, kale pesto with pumpkin seeds), pesto sauce instantly elevates dinner. And parents, take note—pesto is a kid-friendly way to add extra nutrients to your family’s diet. Just add a scoop of hemp seeds, flax seeds, chlorella, or even protein powder for a wholesome boost.
Pesto—aka pesto alla genovese—is an Italian sauce from Genoa, in Liguria. A basil pesto recipe blends fresh basil leaves, coarse salt, buttery pine nuts, crushed garlic, and a hard cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano with olive oil. Although it’s commonly made in food processors nowadays, pesto is traditionally made by hand in a mortar and pestle. In fact, the word pesto means “to crush” or “pounded sauce.”
Beyond Genoa’s famous pesto sauce, there are other variations even within Italy. Pesto alla trapanese features the usual suspects of garlic, basil, and olive oil, but adds almonds and tomatoes. English-writer-turned-Italian-cookbook-author Rachel Roddy learned about the ingredient change-up after moving to Rome, and offers her own recipe in a column for The Guardian.
“It is wonderful to know the origins of recipes, especially when they are steeped in history and tradition, providing a portal into a culture and way of life. It is also wonderful to take ingredients and combine them until the taste and texture is pleasing to you.”
Farther south, in Sicily, you’ll often find pestos with ingredients like capers, anchovies, fennel, and mint.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to make pesto sauce.
Yes! After you make a batch of pesto, freeze it in plastic bags or glass containers for up to nine months. For even smaller portions, use an ice cube tray. You’ll have pesto at the ready, any time.
Classic Italian pesto isn’t vegan (it contains Parmesan cheese), but you can easily omit this ingredient to create vegan-friendly sauces instead.
White pesto is essentially the opposite of basil pesto. The white stuff has three traditional ingredients—toasted nuts, Parmesan, and raw garlic—but gets its creaminess from ricotta, and some recipes add a pinch of fresh oregano, too.
If you’re up for using a bit of muscle, crushing the ingredients in a mortar and pestle is the classic way to make pesto. But if you have a food processor or high-speed blender, pull that out instead. This approach requires nothing but putting all the ingredients into the food processor and slowly streaming in oil—quick and easy!
Even if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can still make homemade pesto in a food processor. Here’s a ratio to use and adapt as you wish with some of the other ingredient suggestions we have below.
2 cups basil leaves
⅓ cup pine nuts
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅓ cup pine nuts
3 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Place basil and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse several times. Add garlic and cheese; pulse several more times, then scrape down the side of the food processor with a rubber spatula. With the motor running, slowly stream in oil. Stir in salt.
Basil, pine nuts, and EVOO might be traditional, but there are many variations to try that can put a fresh spin on your dishes. And you can easily make a vegan pesto recipe—just nix the cheese.
Nuts and Seeds
Oh, the pesto possibilities! We love it on pasta, of course, but here are some other pesto uses to freshen up your meals.
No weekly meal plan is complete without pesto—here are our favorite recipes.
Pistachios take center stage in this vibrant sauce that’s the perfect addition to veggie platters, lamb burgers (see below!) or grilled fish.
This paleo-friendly lamb burger is perfect for indoor or outdoor grilling. Make a batch of pistachio pesto to serve alongside, plus grilled zucchini or asparagus to round out the meal.
For a memorable—and keto-friendly—pizza party, make pesto one of the topping options so everyone can make their own pie. This recipe from Thomas DeLauer is sure to be a hit with friends and family!
A batch of pesto is a great way to add extra nutrition to your meals. This creamy version is made with chlorella, avocado, basil, pistachios, and lemon.
For a simple pasta night, nothing beats this kale-hemp pesto that delivers added omega-3’s thanks to tiny-but-mighty hemp seeds. To make this dish vegan, just swap out the Parmesan cheese for nutritional yeast.
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