Basil Pesto

published Jun 10, 2024
Basil Pesto Recipe

Classic basil pesto with pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan that’s ready to toss with pasta in under 30 minutes.

Serves4

MakesMakes about 1 cup

Prep15 minutes

Cook5 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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overhead shot of pesto in small glass bowl with a spoon in it.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

Pesto is perhaps one of the most versatile sauces you can make. It’s a welcome addition to everything from a bowl of pasta to a chicken salad sandwich. You can make it with almost any greens under the sun, add in different nuts, or even nix greens altogether and use a whole lemon or some sun-dried tomatoes instead. You can even thin it out to make a quick vinaigrette. However, the traditional pesto alla Genovese is hard to beat. It’s also probably the best way to use up a big bunch of delicious — but fragile — fresh basil. 

Basil pesto is my go-to for a quick meal or when I really want to make a dish feel special. The fresh flavor of the basil melds perfectly with the umami of the Parmesan and the roundness of olive oil. Having a good pesto recipe in your back pocket means a quick weeknight dinner is never more than a buzz in the food processor away.

Why You’ll Love It

  • One easy step makes it 100x more flavorful. Briefly toasting the pine nuts brings out their subtle flavor. (It’s a step that not enough recipes call for, IMO.) But what really takes it to the next level is toasting the garlic in the skin (in the same pan!) – it’s just enough to take the raw bite out of its flavor without fully cooking it.
  • It’s “bright, herby, nutty, cheesy, and so delightful.” This recipe went through our cross-test with rave reviews. It’s simple, as pesto should be, with only seven ingredients and can be slathered on basically anything because it’s that delicious. 

Key Ingredients in Basil Pesto

  • Basil: Fresh Italian basil leaves are the backbone of this recipe. Look for bright green leaves without brown spots.
  • Pine nuts: Pine nuts add a subtle nutty and buttery flavor to the sauce.
  • Garlic: Toasting the garlic in its skin softens its flavor without cooking it completely for a more balanced sauce.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil: Look for olive oil with a smooth, rounded flavor.
  • Lemon: Lemon zest brightens the flavor of the sauce.
  • Parmesan cheese: Parmesan provides a balanced umami flavor that isn’t too salty or sharp. Opt for Parmigiano-Reggiano if you can find it.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

A Note About Using a Mortar & Pestle

Pesto alla Genovese is a classic Italian sauce that originated in the city of Genoa. It’s traditionally made by crushing the ingredients in a mortar and pestle. If you’d prefer to use this method to make your sauce, here’s how to do it:

  • Start by first crushing the nuts and garlic until they resemble the texture of sand. 
  • Next, tear the basil leaves into small pieces, which will make them easier to crush and incorporate into a uniform sauce. 
  • Add the basil leaves a bit at a time, making sure the previous addition is fully crushed before adding more. 
  • Add the cheese and zest next, working it into the pasty basil mixture. 
  • Add the oil and stir to combine. Depending on the size of your mortar and pestle, it might be easiest to transfer the pesto to a larger bowl before adding the olive oil 

Pesto made in a mortar and pestle will have a more uneven texture than one made in a food processor, but it’s a great way to really infuse the flavors together by working them in slowly and allowing them to meld together.

Helpful Swaps

  • You can swap some of the basil for an equal amount of another tender green or herb, like parsley, arugula, or spinach.
  • You can swap the pine nuts for walnuts, hazelnuts, or pumpkin seeds.

Storage and Make-Ahead Tips 

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.

What to Make With Basil Pesto

Basil Pesto Recipe

Classic basil pesto with pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan that’s ready to toss with pasta in under 30 minutes.

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 5 minutes

Makes Makes about 1 cup

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2

    unpeeled cloves garlic

  • 1/4 cup

    raw pine nuts

  • 2

    medium bunches fresh basil (about 3 ounces total)

  • 1

    medium lemon

  • 1 ounce

    Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup finely grated or 1/3 cup store-bought grated)

  • 3/4 cup

    extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Use the side of a chef’s knife to lightly crush 2 unpeeled garlic cloves; do not peel the garlic.

  2. Place the garlic and 1/4 cup raw pine nuts in a small skillet. Toast over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the nuts and garlic to a plate and let cool slightly.

  3. Meanwhile, pick the leaves from 2 medium bunches fresh basil until you have 3 packed cups. Finely grate the zest of 1 medium lemon until you have 1 teaspoon. Finely grate 1 ounce Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup lightly packed) if needed, or measure out 1/3 cup store-bought.

  4. Peel the garlic cloves. Place the garlic and pine nuts in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse until the mixture is the texture of wet sand, about 10 (1-second) pulses. Add the basil leaves, Parmesan, and lemon zest. Pulse until the mixture is uniform and broken down into very small pieces, 10 to 12 (1-second) pulses.

  5. With the motor running, drizzle in 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a thin stream. Process until smooth, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon kosher salt.

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.