How To Make the Best Pesto: The Easiest, Simplest Method

How To Make the Best Pesto: The Easiest, Simplest Method

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Meghan Splawn
Jul 17, 2017
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

I grow basil in my herb garden for one primary reason: pesto. This sauce is made from a combination of fresh, grassy basil, sharp garlic, and rich pine nuts, all held together by olive oil. While pesto is incredibly easy to make, it's often rushed to a paste in a blender or food processor without much thought. While I'll never have the time (or a mortar big enough) to make pesto by hand, I have learned that thoughtfully adding the ingredients to a food processor and pulsing rather than puréeing makes for a better blended pesto. Here's how to make perfect food-processor pesto in just four steps.

Perfect Classic Pesto: Watch the Video

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

How to Make Better Blended Pesto

You know the emerald-green pesto you love from the farmers market, with the irregular pieces of basil and twirl of fragrant oil that sits just under the lid? You'll never be able to replicate that pesto at home with a machine. Traditional pesto is made in a mortar and pestle, which creates irregular pieces of basil and jagged pieces of pine nuts that cling incredibly well to cooked pasta. The bad news is that throwing basil and nuts into the blender or food processor is never going to give you the same textures. The good news is that by thoughtfully staggering ingredients into a food processor and adding the basil in two distinct additions, we can make pesto sing with flavor and cling better to pasta than the pastes you find at the mega market.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Key Steps for Better Food Processor Pesto

  • Always pulse: Never just blend any of the ingredients. Don't stream in the oil with the motor running. We're making a rustic sauce, not a smoothie.
  • Get the garlic going first. Pulse this generously until the basil gives up some of its oil. This is the start of our emulsion.
  • Leave the pine nuts chunky. Add the pine nuts and remaining basil to the food processor and pulse just a few times. Remember there is still more pulsing to go and we want to have some visible pieces of the nuts, and not a paste. If you swap pine nuts for something bigger, roughly chop them by hand before adding to the food processor.
  • Forget streaming. Forget the cheese. Again, pulse the olive oil in — no need to stream it in with the motor running. Cheese in pesto is totally optional and I've found my pesto stays greener longer if I don't add it in the food processor. Instead, I add the cheese directly to pasta when I add the pesto.

What Is Pesto?

Pesto is an uncooked sauce of fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, and dry aged cheese held together by olive oil. From the Italian word for pounded, pesto was originally made with a mortar and pestle in its home city of Genoa. It's frequently made in a blender or food processor in most modern kitchens and is a favorite for everything from pasta to chicken. Modern pestos are made from many different combinations of nuts, other herbs, and hearty greens, as well as with or without the cheese. Once you master the basic ratio of nuts to herbs to oil, you can easily swap out one or more of these for your own custom pesto.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

How to Serve Pesto on Pasta

Last rule of pesto: Don't add the pesto directly to the pasta pan and cook it. Instead, move the pasta to a large serving bowl and toss with the pesto and Parmesan cheese and toss to coat. If the pesto pasta feels dry or isn't quite clingy enough, add a little of the pasta cooking water and toss again.


How To Make the Best Pesto: The Easiest, Simplest Method

Makes about 2 cups

What You Need

Ingredients

4 cloves garlic, crushed
6 ounces (2 healthy bunches or about 6 cups gently packed) basil leaves, or any other green
1/2 cup raw pine nuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, or any other hard cheese

Equipment
Measuring cup
Measuring spoons
Knife and cutting board
Food processor

Instructions

  1. Pulse the garlic until roughly chopped. Put the garlic in a food processor and pulse 5 to 6 times until roughly chopped
  2. Add half of the basil and pulse until roughly chopped. Add about half of the basil and pulse 5 to 6 times until the basil is roughly chopped.
  3. Add the pine nuts and remaining basil. Add the pine nuts, followed by the remaining basil leaves. Pulse 10 to 12 times into a rough paste.
  4. Add the olive oil and cheese and pulse into a fine, rough paste. Do not stream in the oil as other recipes instruct. Instead add the oil and cheese and pulse until just combined. The pesto should not be smooth but a rather irregularly paste.

Recipe Notes

  • Storage: Store pesto in the smallest container possible with the smallest top surface area and thoroughly pack it in to eliminate air pockets. Pour a thin layer of olive oil over the surface or press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the pesto, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Pesto can also be frozen for several months.
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