How To Make Perfect Pesto Every Time

How To Make Perfect Pesto Every Time

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Emma Christensen
Aug 23, 2018
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman | Kitchn)

It's always tempting to eat pesto by the spoonful. It's so very fresh and so very green. And those flavors of basil, pine nut, Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil just play so very nicely together. Spread it on sandwiches, toss it with pasta, or yes, treat yourself a single happy spoonful, but definitely absolutely positively make pesto any chance you get.

Perfect Classic Pesto: Watch the Video

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

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 From the Italian word for pounded, pesto was originally made with a mortar and pestle in its home city of Genoa.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.

Besides how heavenly it tastes, the other thing I love about pesto is that it can be whatever you want it to be. Traditional Italian pesto is, of course, made strictly with basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, garlic, and really good olive oil. It's a classic sauce, no contest.

But you can switch out the basil for another handy herb or leafy green, replace the (crazy expensive, if delicious) pine nuts with a different favorite nut, or swap the Parmesan for pecorino or asiago. Use more or less of anything to suit your tastes. Heck, you can even make a lower-fat pesto by replacing some of the olive oil with ricotta cheese!

Key Steps for Pesto from the Food Processor

Process half of the basil first. The best pesto has a mixture of fine and rough pieces of basil in the finished sauce. Traditional pesto is made in a mortar and pestle to get that texture. By adding the basil in two batches (and carefully pulsing) we can replicate that text with less work.

Pulse, don't blend. Part of pesto's appeal is its rough texture that clings beautifully to pasta and bread. Over process the sauce and pine nuts will be better and the sauce will be to thin to coat pasta.

Stream in the oil. Once the basil, pine nuts, garlic and cheese are evenly distributed stream in olive oil using the steady pulse to create an emulsion that keeps the sauce together.

Storing Basil Pesto

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.

How to Make Pesto

Makes about 1 cup

What You Need

Ingredients

  • 5 to 6 ounces

    (2 big bunches or about 6 cups gently packed) fresh basil leaves, or any other green, divided

  • 1/2 cup

    toasted pine nuts, or any other nut

  • 1/2 cup

    grated Parmesan cheese, or any other hard cheese

  • 1 to 2 cloves

    garlic

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup

    extra-virgin olive oil

  • Equipment
  • Blender or food processor

Instructions

  1. Blend half the basil with the nuts, cheese, and garlic. Place 1/2 of the basil in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment or blender. Add the nuts, cheese, garlic, and salt and process or blend until the ingredients are finely chopped.

  2. Blend in the rest of the basil. Scrape down the sides of the bowl or pitcher and add the remaining basil. Process or blend until a uniform paste has formed, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl or pitcher as needed.

  3. Stream in the olive oil. With the motor running, stream in the olive oil. Less olive oil will make a paste good for spreading on sandwiches and pizzas; more will make a sauce better for pastas and stirring into soup. Scrape down the sides of the bowl or pitcher and continue blending as needed until the olive oil is emulsified into the basil and the pesto looks uniform.

  4. Taste and adjust. Taste the pesto and add more salt, garlic, nuts, or cheese as needed.

  5. Using and storing pesto. Pesto will darken and brown very quickly, but will still be tasty and fresh for several days. For best appearance, use it right away.

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.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)
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