This classic Basil Pesto recipe is incredibly simple to make, and can be tossed with pasta, spread on bread, dolloped on pizza, and more!
The best thing about pesto might be that you can whip up a batch in 5 minutes, and then keep it in the fridge to use with tons of different foods.
Or actually, maybe the best thing about it is how delicious it is. Hard to say 😉
The recipe I’m sharing today is for a traditional basil pesto, though you can certainly experiment with different types of nuts and ingredients as you get comfortable with the base recipe.
Here are the main ingredients for a traditional Basil Pesto:
- Fresh basil
- Pine nuts
- Olive oil
- Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Season to taste with salt and pepper, and that’s it! It’s simple, but so flavorful.
How to Make Basil Pesto:
First we’re going to need some toasted pine nuts:
Pine nuts are expensive, but I believe they are truly worth the expense when it comes to pesto, and they are essential for a truly classic version. They have a really unique flavor that can’t be substituted with other nuts.
Toasting the pine nuts for the pesto is an important step, to bring out and enhance the flavor. You can toast in a dry skillet for about 5 minutes over medium heat until golden, stirring frequently, or you can toast in a 350F oven for about 8-10 minutes, watching closely so they don’t burn.
Add the toasted pine nuts to a food processor along with some garlic, and process until smooth:
Next, add fresh basil leaves, a pinch of salt and pepper, and olive oil, and mix until it looks like this:
Make sure you only use the basil leaves for the pesto, and not the stems. The stems are often tough and have a bitter flavor.
At the very end, add some freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese:
Using the authentic Italian Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is very important for a traditional flavor and pesto.
Pulse the cheese in very briefly, just until it’s mixed, then the pesto is ready to use.
I love dipping baguette into it, tossing it with pasta, stirring it into risotto, slathering it on chicken breast, and a bazillion other things. What do you like to use pesto for?
Pesto Substitution Questions:
- Can pesto be made without pine nuts? Yes, but it won’t have the same traditional flavor. However, walnuts also work well, as do almonds, pecans, and pistachios.
- Can you use other herbs? Sometimes a mix of parsley and basil is nice. This isn’t traditional, but you can also greens in place of the basil, like in a kale pesto for my kale pesto potato salad.
- Can you change the cheese? I recommend sticking in the same profile as a parmigiano reggiano, something that’s salty and a bit nutty. Decent substitutions are Grana padano and Pecorino Romano for a more tangy flavor.
- Can you change the oil? Make sure to use a flavorful extra virgin olive oil here. Taste it, and make sure it tastes delicious on its own. As far as the character, some are fruity, some are spicy, and you can decide which type you use.
Pesto Storage Questions:
- Can you freeze pesto? Yes, but you should only use frozen pesto in cooked applications afterward, such as stirred into pasta sauces. The basil will brown a bit in the freezer and it won’t taste quite the same.
- How long does pesto keep? In the refrigerator, it will keep well for 3-4 days.
How to keep pesto green: If a bright green color is important to you, you will need to blanch the basil leaves in boiling water for 30 seconds, then immediately plunge in ice water for 30 seconds, then drain well before adding it to the pesto. This is an optional step, and just for the sake of looks.
The full recipe is below, and here’s a video if you’d like more guidance. Enjoy!
Classic Basil Pesto
For the Basil Pesto:
- 3 cloves garlic peeled
- 1/2 cup toasted pinenuts
- 2 oz fresh basil leaves
- 1/4 tsp salt or to taste
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper or to taste
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
- Place the peeled garlic cloves and toasted pinenuts in a food processor, and process for about 30 seconds until it’s well pureed and almost pastey.
- Add the basil leaves to the food processor, along with the salt and pepper, and pulse it until the basil is chopped up.
- With the food processor running, pour in the olive oil, and once it’s incorporated, stop the food processor.
- Add the parmesan cheese, and pulse it in a couple of times until incorporated.
- Do a final taste of the pesto and decide if it might need more salt or pepper. Now it’s ready to be used and enjoyed!
This post was updated with more tips and writing in June 2018. Originally published January 2014.