There's no better way to take advantage of fresh summer basil than with a traditional homemade pesto sauce! The easy recipe is made with classic ingredients like olive oil, Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic and basil for a simple and flavorful sauce in just 10 minutes.
Homemade pesto is such a great summer dish because it takes advantage of the season's fresh herbs and it doesn't require any cooking! Use this versatile recipe for pasta, fish, pizza, chicken, sandwiches, salad dressings and more. It's also freezer-friendly, so you can enjoy the bright taste all year long!
What is pesto?
Pesto is a sauce that was invented in Genoa, Italy to take advantage of the superior basil that grows in the Italian Riviera. The sauce is never cooked, and the ingredients include a simple blend of basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, grated cheese and (sometimes) butter. Genoese cooks insist that pesto should be made with a mortar and pestle -- after all, the name "pesto" comes from the word pestare, which means to pound or to grind (as in a mortar). These days, however, it's much more common for home cooks in the United States to prepare a traditional pesto sauce with quick help from a food processor.
What is pesto sauce used for?
The Italians created pesto to be the ultimate pasta sauce. There's truly nothing better than pesto pasta! If you have a jar on hand, you can also use the sauce in a variety of other ways.
Recipes with Pesto:
- Pizza: swap out the tomato-based sauce and use homemade pesto instead.
- Sandwiches: spread the pesto on focaccia bread and pile high with Italian meats for the ultimate Italian sandwich! We also like to combine pesto with mayonnaise to make a delicious sandwich spread that is particularly good on these Grilled Chicken Caprese Sandwiches.
- Chicken: add a dollop to a piece of grilled chicken, or try this Dump-and-Bake Basil Pesto Chicken recipe.
- Pasta: for a change, try mixing the pesto with tomatoes in this Tomato Pesto Pasta with Grilled Chicken. Pesto is also a flavorful ingredient in Slow Cooker Turkey and Pesto Lasagna and in our favorite Stuffed Shells.
- Vegetables: jazz up veggies with pesto, too! We love these Pesto Zucchini Lasagna Roll-Ups, or dress your greens with pesto using this Basil Pesto Salad Dressing.
- Fish: a dollop of fresh pesto is delicious on just about any piece of seafood (like this perfect grilled salmon).
- Dip: Pesto can be used as a dip on its own (with fresh, crusty bread or crisp veggies), or you can mix it with other ingredients like sour cream or mayonnaise for a thicker, creamier dip.
How to make Homemade Pesto from Scratch:
With just a handful of basic ingredients and about 10 minutes of effort, you can have a beautiful, aromatic sauce ready to be enjoyed. You don't even have to turn on the oven! This is truly the ultimate pesto recipe...
Ingredients for Traditional Pesto Recipe:
- Fresh basil
- Parmesan cheese
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
How to measure the basil leaves:
When measuring the fresh basil leaves for this pesto recipe, gently press them down to fill the measuring cup. You don't want to pack them firmly and tightly, but you do want to press them down a bit. When you release your fingers, they will likely pop up and be overflowing -- that's fine! The cup doesn't need to be leveled off like flour for baking.
How to toast the pine nuts:
Toasting the pine nuts before adding them to the food processor gives the sauce a much richer, deeper flavor. Pine nuts burn very easily when toasted in a skillet, however. Instead, I like to quickly toast my pine nuts in the microwave. Just place the nuts on a microwave-safe plate and cook on high power in 30-second intervals, stirring in between. The nuts will be toasted and fragrant within 1-2 minutes. Bonus -- you're less likely to burn them in the microwave, too!
Step 1: Add Parmesan, Pine Nuts, Garlic and Salt to Food Processor
Process these ingredients by pulsing to make the crumbs finer. I like to give them a head start before adding the basil and olive oil.
Step 2: Add Basil and Olive Oil
Place the basil in the food processor, and then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while pulsing. You're looking for a uniform, creamy consistency.
How to Store Homemade Pesto:
Use the pesto right away, while it's at its peak freshness! If you have extra pesto, place in an airtight container with the smallest top surface area. Pack the pesto tightly to eliminate air pockets, and pour a thin layer of olive oil on top. Then press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the oil before closing the lid. The homemade pesto will last in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
To Freeze Fresh Basil Pesto:
Pack the pesto tightly to eliminate air pockets, and pour a thin layer of olive oil on top. Then press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the oil before securing a lid. It's easiest to freeze the pesto in small portions so that you can thaw only what you need for a given meal or recipe. Try using an ice cube tray for individual servings of frozen pesto. The pesto will last in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Why does pesto turn brown?
Pesto turns brown as a result of a chemical reaction that occurs when the cut basil is exposed to air. The reaction is called oxidation, and you can avoid oxidation (and prevent some browning) by packaging the pesto with as little basil exposed to the air as possible. This is why I suggest drizzling a layer of olive oil on top and then pressing plastic wrap over the oil.
Can you make homemade pesto in a blender?
Yes, you can use a blender to make this homemade pesto sauce if you don't have a food processor. It's much harder to control the texture of the sauce when you use a blender, so you'll end up with a smoother, more pureed sauce. That's fine -- it just won't have the traditional texture that's easier to achieve by pulsing with a food processor or grinding with a mortar and pestle.
Homemade Pesto Calories:
This wholesome sauce is made with just a few very simple, nutritious ingredients. It has a strong taste, so a little goes a long way. You don't need too much to really add a ton of flavor to a dish, but you'll reap the benefits of healthy fats from the olive oil and pine nuts, as well as the vitamins and minerals in the fresh basil. Each 1-tablespoon serving has about 108 calories, 11 grams of fat, 1 gram of carbohydrate and 2 grams of protein.
What is the ratio of pesto to pasta?
This is definitely a matter of preference. A good rule of thumb is approximately ⅔ cup of pesto for every 1 pound of pasta. You may also want to add some butter and starchy cooking water (from the pasta) to thin the sauce a bit.
This recipe yields about ¾ cup of sauce, which will be enough for about 1 - 1½ pounds of pesto pasta. Don't forget to thin the sauce with cooking water and butter, to taste.
Cook's Tips and Recipe Variations - Homemade Pesto:
- Traditional pesto is known for its mixture of fine and rough pieces of basil in the finished sauce (the best pesto is made with a mortar and pestle). To achieve this same texture with the food processor, just pulse the ingredients rather than pureeing them together.
- Homemade Pesto with Walnuts: swap out the pine nuts and use toasted walnuts instead.
- Homemade Spinach Pesto: use fresh baby spinach leaves in lieu of the basil leaves. Since spinach doesn't have nearly the flavor that basil has, I would recommend adding at least a few fresh basil leaves (or other fresh herbs) for extra flavor.
- Swap out the basil and use other fresh herbs like parsley!
- Authentic, traditional pesto recipes suggest that you stir the cheese into the sauce at the very end. The cheese is grated, but not processed. As a result, the pesto sauce has a more grainy texture. If you prefer a smoother pesto (like we do), it's common in the United States to add the cheese to the food processor with the other ingredients.
More easy Italian-inspired sauce recipes that you might enjoy:
- Tomato Pesto Pasta Sauce
- Marinara Sauce (using fresh or canned tomatoes)
- Spaghetti Meat Sauce
- Bolognese Sauce
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
- ½ cup olive oil (or more as needed to reach desired consistency)
- Black pepper, to taste
- Place the Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic cloves and salt in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the basil to the food processor, and slowly drizzle in the olive oil while pulsing. Process until the sauce comes together in a uniform, creamy consistency, scraping down the sides occasionally and adding extra olive oil, if necessary.
- Taste and season with additional salt and black pepper, if desired.