Think beyond pasta! Homemade basil pesto is quick and easy to make and serves as a versatile ingredient in your kitchen. Fresh basil leaves shine in this simple sauce.
From helping my mom tend to our backyard herb garden as a kid to having my own as an adult, my main focus has always been on basil for one reason: homemade basil pesto. It might be my favorite pasta sauce of all time, which is really saying something.
Known as pesto alla Genovese or pesto di basilico in Italian, the bold and easily identifiable flavor of basil pesto is a classic for a reason.
- Fresh Basil: Look to use a sweet basil variety, like Genovese, for pesto as this type is boldly flavored - and fragranced! This is the kind commonly found in American grocery stores or garden centers for backyard planting.
- Pine Nuts: These are the traditional option for basil pesto, but there's no getting around the fact that they're expensive and can be hard to find. In my experience Costco and then Trader Joe's have had the best prices, but walnuts are the next best substitution.
- Parmesan: Freshly-grated or finely-shredded provides SO much more flavor than most store-bought offerings. If you need to buy pre-grated, choose a high-quality brand from the refrigerated deli case. Another variety of hard Italian cheese, such as Pecorino Romano works well, too.
- Olive Oil: With its light and fruity flavor, extra-virgin olive oil is the move in no-cook recipes like pesto.
- Garlic: Use fresh young garlic cloves for the brightest flavor, not the bitter-leaning, sprouted ones that have been hanging around the pantry for weeks...(not that that's anything I'm familiar with!).
- Salt & Pepper: Add to taste.
Preparing Basil - Whether it's from a backyard plant or store-bought, rinse the basil leaves under cold water just prior to making pesto sauce. Spin in a salad spinner or pat with a clean towel to dry.
- Add basil leaves, garlic, salt, and pepper to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the basil is broken down into small bits.
- Add the pine nuts and Parmesan or Pecorino.
- Process until everything is evenly combined.
- With the motor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the pour spout of the food processor. Adjust for salt and pepper, adding a little extra oil if you'd like a thinner consistency.
Should You Blanch Basil for Pesto?
One drawback of homemade basil pesto is that before long it oxidizes and turns a more muted green and then brown. While still fine to eat, it's a bummer to lose the vibrant green coloring when enjoying your favorite pesto pasta.
What some people say is the solution? Blanching fresh basil leaves before preparing pesto. Dunk the leaves in boiling water for no more than 15 seconds (longer risks flavor loss), then immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water.
I've tested this several times and while it did delay oxidation, I find it's usually more trouble than it's worth unless preserving bright green pesto is very important to you.
One important note: I recommend never blanching so-so supermarket basil. You know the type: basil that technically will do the trick in a recipe but is noticeably subpar when compared to the fresh homegrown kind? Despite being precise with timing, I found the flavor to have dulled significantly when blanched.
Traditional pesto alla Genovese consists of the same ingredients: basil, pine nuts, olive oil, hard Italian cheese, garlic, and salt. That said, basil pesto leaves room for tweaks here and there as you like. Consider the following when preparing a batch at home:
- Add lemon juice (and/or zest) for a spring-y flavor, like in pesto pasta primavera.
- Switch up the greens, from basil to baby spinach, arugula, or kale. Technically other greens can work, but you may have mixed results due to their stronger flavors (parsley, cilantro, etc.)
- Pour in a few tablespoons of heavy cream once prepared for a creamy restaurant-style pesto sauce.
Recipe Tips and Tricks
- Easy Serving - Pesto is raw, not meant to be cooked. Simply stir it into pasta just prior to serving, dollop over meat, etc.
- Storing Pesto - Transfer prepared basil pesto to a narrow jar and pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top surface. Cover with a lid or a snug-fitting layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate for 5-6 days.
- Freezing Homemade Pesto - Place pesto in a freezer zip-top bag, seal with all excess air pressed out, and flatten the pesto in the bag. Alternatively, freeze smaller portions of pesto in ice cube trays. Freeze for 5-6 months. Thaw in the refrigerator or defrost it quickly on half-power in the microwave before use.
Yes. An equal amount of shelled walnuts is a great swap, followed by almonds. Other nuts like pistachios work as well, but have a stronger flavor that can interfere with the fresh basil. If you'd like to make pesto without nuts at all, sunflower seeds may be an acceptable substitute.
You can use a blender, though it may not work as well if making a half-batch as the blender requires a minimum amount of ingredients in order to function properly. While I haven't done it myself, you can also put in some elbow grease and go the traditional route and use a mortar and pestle. The word pesto derives from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or crush.
Blanching fresh basil leaves before preparing pesto for maximum 15 seconds can prevent the color turning, but you risk a loss of flavor. Consider adding a portion of baby spinach, which doesn't oxidize, along with the basil, and/or store basil with a thin layer of olive oil on the top surface to prevent air from reaching the pesto and muddying the color.
Ways to Use Basil Pesto
- As a sandwich spread on a mortadella sandwich.
- In homemade pesto hummus.
- As a flavorful base for pesto salad dressing.
- To breathe new life into a sometimes boring (sorry!) pasta classic with pesto pasta primavera.
- As a dipping sauce for fried polenta slices.
Other Pesto Varieties
If you’ve enjoyed this recipe, I’d love for you to leave a star rating in the recipe card and/or a comment review below!
Homemade Basil Pesto
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves well-packed
- 2-3 small cloves garlic roughly chopped, or to taste
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt more to taste
- ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper more to taste
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano
- ¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Add basil leaves, chopped garlic, salt, and pepper to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the basil is blitzed up into small bits and everything is evenly combined.
- Add Parmesan and pine nuts to the food processor and pulse in until combined. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- With the food processor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the pour spout until fully combined. Taste and add additional salt and pepper, if needed. Drizzle in extra olive oil if you'd like a thinner pesto sauce.
- Switch out the basil for baby spinach, arugula, or kale (or a blend).
- Replace the pine nuts with walnuts, almonds, or pistachios.
- Add lemon juice and/or lemon zest.
- Stir in a few tablespoons of cream.
Nutritional information is provided as an estimate. As it can vary due to many factors (brands used, quantities, etc.), we cannot guarantee its accuracy.Food Safety and Nutrition Disclaimer