I Tried 8 Methods for Making Pesto and the Winner Was a Revelation

published Jun 25, 2022
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A photo of different tools used to make pesto and their labels with the title "The Best Way to Make Pesto".
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto — the simple sauce made from basil, aged Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil — is used to dress up weeknight chicken, coat noodles, or take a workday lunch sandwich from ho-hum to heck yeah! It’s bold, punchy, and freezes well. What’s not to love?

The vibrant green sauce dates back hundreds of years to Genoa, the capital city of Liguria, Italy, and is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle. These days, however, many cooks choose to save some time and elbow grease by whipping it up in the food processor or blender.

But what’s the best way to make balanced, creamy, clingy (no one over the age of five wants a naked noodle) pesto? Is this a case where the traditional way is worth the effort, or do modern machines win the day? To find out, I trashed my kitchen and broke out every possible tool I had, ordered a few new ones, and borrowed some from my neighbors to find out which pesto was the besto (sorry not sorry).

So What Is the Best Way to Make Pesto?

When it comes to the best tool for making pesto, I found a clear winner — the Genovese mortar and pestle — but my top choices really depend on who you are, how much money you want to spend, and your commitment to tradition. There are definitely cheaper and easier ways to make pesto, so read on to learn more about the winners (and losers) and to discover your own personal best tool for making pesto.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

A Few Notes on Methodology

The Pesto Recipe

I tested eight ways to make pesto using the ingredient list from Kitchn’s basic pesto recipe, but I borrowed the technique from Samin Nosrat’s basil pesto recipe. 

Nosrat, the famed author of Salt Fat Acid Heat, adapted her recipe from Lidia Caveri, a friend’s Italian mother-in-law. Lidia pounds the pine nuts and garlic together first to create a paste before adding any additional ingredients. I found this method created the creamiest pesto. 

Here are the basic ratios and ingredients I used in each test.

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1 medium garlic clove
  • 1 1/2 cups packed basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated on a Microplane
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

The Methods

I divided the testing methods into manual and motorized.

Manual Methods

  • Large Genovese marble mortar with a wooden pestle from Italy
  • Small marble mortar and pestle
  • Mezzaluna (half-moon rocking knife with two handles)
  • Chef’s knife

Motorized Methods

  • Food processor
  • High-speed blender
  • Standard blender
  • Immersion blender

Ratings: Each pesto was rated on a scale of 1 to 10. With each method, I evaluated the success of the pesto based on taste, texture, color, how well it coated noodles, and time investment (both in the actual making of the sauce and the cleanup).

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Small Mortar and Pestle

  • Rating: 1/10
  • Color: Beige with bits of green
  • Time: 23 minutes

A 2-cup mortar and pestle is the most common size in American households, so it made sense to see if I could whip up a batch in that vessel.

First, I pounded the garlic and the pine nuts into a paste, which worked well enough. But when it came to adding the basil the small mortar and pestle didn’t have enough surface area to break it down. It was also difficult to get a good grip on the mortar while trying to pound the basil leaves.

The flavors combined well, but visually it looked like muted brown paste with large bits of pulverized basil. (Think: unappetizing spinach dip.) I tried this twice because using a mortar and pestle can take a bit of practice. 

On the second attempt I added a small amount of basil followed by a small amount of salt to help with grinding it up. I did this until all the basil and salt was used up. It was better than the first go-around, but still not anything I would want to serve to friends — or even someone I don’t like that much.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: High-Speed Blender

  • Rating: 1/10
  • Color: Bright green
  • Time: 3 minutes

Of all the motorized tests, the high-speed blender was my least favorite. The pesto was chunkier than those made using the other motorized methods, which surprised me. It was like having a distinct bite of each ingredient rather than a properly pulverized sauce. For me, this method isn’t worth the time it takes to clean the blender or lug that giant loud beast out of the cabinet and onto the counter.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Chef’s Knife

  • Rating: 5/10
  • Color: Army green
  • Time: 18 minutes

I’m a firm believer in using the simplest tools first (no garlic press for me!) before investing in an additional tool, so picking up my trusty chef’s knife to see if it would do the trick for making pesto was a natural choice. For this method, I minced the pine nuts and garlic together using my chef’s knife, used the side of my blade to smash and drag the combination into a paste, then added the basil and salt and continued mincing. Finally, I added the cheese, minced again, then transferred it to a dish and stirred in the oil. The end result was grainy and not very appealing. A chef’s knife is a super tool in the kitchen, but even super tools have their limitations. I would not use my chef’s knife again to make pesto. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Mezzaluna

  • Rating: 6/10
  • Color: Army green
  • Time: 28 minutes

For the mezzaluna method, I minced the pine nuts and garlic together, then used the side of the blade to smash them and make a paste before mincing the basil and salt, then cheese. Once all of those ingredients were finely minced, I transferred the pesto to a jar and stirred in the olive oil. The mezzaluna created a pesto with a grainy texture. It was just slightly better than the version made with a chef’s knife and slightly less work to make, due the double blade.

If you’re on a budget and have a small kitchen (and little room for things like blenders, food processors, or an expensive mortar and pestle from Italy), then go ahead and try making pesto using a mezzaluna. If it’s what you have, you can create a sauce with a good flavor, but it won’t have the creaminess of true pesto. Plus, a mezzaluna will run you less than 20 bucks and you can use it to chop herbs, lettuce, leafy greens, garlic, ginger, nuts, and more.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Immersion Blender

  • Rating: 6/10  
  • Color: Bright green
  • Time: 8 minutes

I made pesto twice using the immersion blender. The first time, I packed the ingredients into a tall glass jar and inserted the wand and tried to blend it, but I wasn’t getting much traction. I tried streaming the oil into the partially blended ingredients, but it was kind of awkward to hold and move the immersion blender while streaming in the oil with the other hand.

The second time, I added everything together, including the olive oil, which worked better and created a smoother sauce. One thing I noticed with the immersion blender that I didn’t see with any of the other methods was that some of the stringy fibers of the basil didn’t quite chop up. It wasn’t a huge deterrent, but something I noticed and you might, too. To remedy this, you can remove the stems from your basil leaves before blending.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Regular Blender

  • Rating: 7/10
  • Color: Bright green
  • Time: 5 minutes

In my tests, a standard blender created a smooth, bright green, uniform pesto that came together as quickly as it did in the food processor. 

The first time I made this I tried to layer the ingredients — pine nuts and garlic first, then adding everything else one at a time — but it didn’t work. The nuts and garlic didn’t quite blend and I had to add additional ingredients to get it going. 

Once I added everything together (including the olive oil) it came together rather quickly into a tasty, vibrant pesto. The downsides are that it’s difficult to remove the pesto from the blender and you have to clean the blender afterwards.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Food Processor

  • Rating: 8/10
  • Color: Bright green
  • Time: 3 minutes

For the food processor test, I first blitzed the garlic and the pine nuts together until they became a uniform paste — scraping down the bowl and blade multiple times before adding the basil and salt. 

Once the basil and salt were well-combined, I added the finely grated cheese, and pulsed until it was fully incorporated. Finally, I scraped down the food processor bowl, removed the blade, and slowly added a scant 1/4 cup of olive oil while stirring with a spatula.

I didn’t add the olive oil while the food processor was running because I wanted to stay as close to the traditional manual method as possible. Layering the ingredients in the food processor step by step and stirring in the oil rather than blending it in the food processor made for a creamier sauce that was as close to the real deal as possible. I even chilled the food processor blade to help maintain the pesto’s color.

This was by far the best of the motorized methods, and produced a delicious pesto, although it wasn’t as creamy as the winning method, nor were the flavors as cohesive. When I did a side-by-side noodle-coating test, the pesto made using the winning mortar and pestle method was creamier and coated the noodles better, while the food processor pesto left an oily sheen with flecks of basil throughout.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pesto-Making Method: Genovese Mortar and Pestle

  • Rating: 9/10
  • Color: Light green (like the inside of an avocado)
  • Time: 25 minutes

I typically try to avoid being sentimental about tradition — just because we used to travel via covered wagon doesn’t mean we should eschew cars. We’ve figured out better ways to do a lot of things, but there are times when modern conveniences have created something completely different from its namesake, and pesto is one of those things.

Making pesto in a mortar and pestle takes a bit of practice, especially if you’ve made it in a food processor your whole life. I made this version with the traditional Genovese marble mortar and wooden pestle eight times before I felt like I had a technique down that worked for me and created the pesto of my dreams. It was a journey with loads of pesto emotions.

By batch three I was looking at the food processor on the other side of my kitchen and thinking, “Why would anyone do this?” My hand was cramping, my shoulder hurt, and I wasn’t getting results similar to the Italian grandmothers I’d been learning about.

But eventually my body became familiar with the motion of grinding nuts, garlic, and basil against a marble surface and I was able to create the creamiest, sweetest, and most delightful pesto I have ever had.

The Genovese mortar and pestle creates a creamy soft green colored pesto, more akin to the color of the inside of an avocado or garden fresh peas than the grassy dark green commonly seen in most American-made pesto. But it’s the textural difference and the taste that really sets it apart.

The process of pounding the nuts and garlic together and then adding the basil combines the oils together to create a cohesive paste and singular flavor. The finished sauce is slightly sweet, nutty, and herbal, without any one flavor dominating another.

When it comes to texture, the solids don’t separate from the oil, even after resting for 24 hours. It remains a creamy emulsion that coats every curve and crevice of pasta. It’s everything you want in a sauce, and the extra elbow grease just makes the result even more rewarding.

The mortar and pestle I used cost about $150 (I know that’s a huge investment). It’s made from Carrara marble, has a 4-cup capacity, and has petal-shaped outcroppings around the mortar to hold while grinding the ingredients with the wooden pestle.

The only reason why I gave this method a 9 out of 10 was because of the time and expense. When I was finishing up my last batch, my body was used to the tools and motion. The process became rhythmic and cathartic, like the act of kneading bread.

Final Thoughts

In the end, while the Genovese mortar and pestle won me over, there’s a great method of making pesto for every type of cook.

  • For traditionalists: Invest in the Genovese mortar and pestle from Italy. It’s going to run you about $150, but it’s a beautiful staple in your kitchen and you can use it for other things. Use it to make other herb sauces like chimichurri, grind spices and dried chilies, or to crush nuts or ginger into smaller pieces. You could even use it make guacamole. (See more ideas for using a mortar and pestle.) The sauce was balanced and creamy and it maintained its color longer and coated noodles better than any other method I tested. Frankly, I was amazed by the difference.
  • For modern makers who like the quickest method: Stick with the food processor. The pesto won’t be as creamy, but if you’re all about efficiency this will do the trick.
  • For those on a budget or with small kitchens: Go for the mezzaluna or the immersion blender.