This fresh basil pesto recipe is easy to make with pine nuts (or walnuts), garlic, Parmesan cheese, and a generous drizzle of quality extra virgin olive oil. Make it ahead and refrigerate or freeze for later use (I have a few tasty ideas for you)! A couple of tips make all the difference. Be sure to read through and watch my video below!
What is pesto and how to use it?
Classic pesto is an Italian sauce made of fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, and aged hard cheese--typically grated Parmesan--all brought together by a drizzle of quality extra virgin olive oil and seasoned simply with salt and black pepper.
Traditionally, pesto sauce was made using a mortar and pestle, which produces great texture. But a food processor, like I use in today's recipe, works very well.
Basil pesto is fresh, delicious, and such a versatile condiment.
What is basil pesto good for?
Pesto is a great flavor enhancer used often in Italian and Mediterranean cooking. Here are a few ways and recipes to use it:
- Toss it in some pasta. Two must-try options for ya: pesto pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella or this broccoli pesto pasta.
- Layer it on top of grilled chicken (Hello 20-Minute Caprese Chicken deliciousness)!
- Use it on top of fish. Great over grilled salmon, and I've recently tried a dollop to over my fish en papillote.
- Drizzle a little over soup (never enough basil in a tomato basil soup), or to finish your roasted tomatoes (Aren't pesto and tomatoes are a match made in summer heaven?!)
- Spoon a lot into soup! A generous scoop of pesto in a lemon orzo soup takes the flavor to the next level!
- Use it to dress up some tomato caprese salad like I do in the video below. So good!
- And if nothing else, use it as a dip with your favorite crusty bread (Oooh, if you made the Jerusalem bagels I posted earlier, you can totally dip them in this sauce. Trust me, you won't be made about it)!
- You can also use basil to make a pesto-style vinaigrette, which is vegan because we don't use any cheese!
Sure, pesto is not hard to find. You can buy it in jars or in the freezer section at your local grocery store. And in a pinch, store-bought will do. But it just does not hold a candle to the fresh homemade stuff.
Making pesto from scratch is not hard at all. And I love that there are a few ways to store it for later use!
Bright green basil pesto that won't fade
One of the frustrating things we run into is that pesto quickly oxidizes, turning from it's beautiful bright green color into something more on the brownish side. I have two small tips that I use in my video below, and they have made all the difference:
- Blanch the fresh basil. This step takes just a few seconds. You place the basil in a boiling pot of water for 5 to 10 seconds max, then transfer it quickly to an ice bath to stop cooking. And before using it, make sure you wring out all the water. Blanching is meant to kill off the decomposing enzymes that are responsible for turning the leaves brown. Fine Cooking also claims that this trick helps create a better emulsion.
- Use a little citrus. Juice of ½ lemon adds loads of brightness to your homemade basil pesto. I think it enhances the flavor and also aids in keeping that bright green color.
Now, let's get to the question of the day: how do you make it?
How to make pesto from scratch:
Like I said earlier, I am using a food processor in this quick pesto recipe. And once you've blanched the basil, it really takes two steps from there:
- Blend. Add the basil (2 cups, blanched and well-drained), toasted pine nuts or walnuts (⅓ cup), fresh garlic (1 to 2 garlic cloves), and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade. Cover and run the processor. As the processor is running, slowly drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil from the top opening.
- Mix in the cheese. Transfer the basil mixture to a bowl. Add the grated Parmesan cheese (about ½ cup). If you need to, add more extra virgin olive oil to help mix it. Watch for the consistency you like.
- Season. Taste and season with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper to your liking.
How to store it
I like to store my basil pesto the same way I store my harissa paste, in a tightly-closed mason jar with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to seal the very top layer. Place the pesto jar in the fridge for use as needed. And as you use it, be sure to replenish that top layer of extra virgin olive oil to keep it nicely sealed (always return it to the fridge, of course).
If stored properly, basil pesto will keep well in the fridge for a good week or maybe a little big longer.
What can you use in place of pine nuts in pesto?
Traditional basil pesto uses pine nuts, but they are pricey and if you don't use them in your cooking often, you may be wondering what to replace them with. The good news is, you can make pesto using other nuts such as walnuts, blanched almonds, or even pistachios.
Can you freeze basil pesto?
Yes! There are a couple of ways you can freeze it, depending on how you plan to use it.
- In a freezer-safe jar. Simply put the pesto in the jar. Add the top layer of extra virgin olive oil and freeze. I do this when I plan to use the entire amount in a pasta dish for example, and it will keep well a good month this way.
- In ice cube trays. If you want to be able to use a little bit of pesto at a time, pour it into ice cube trays and freeze for 1 hour or until hard, then transfer the cubes to freezer bags and keep in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Thaw frozen homemade pesto in the fridge for a few hours, or you may be able to thaw it out at room temperature for about 30 minutes or so.
I used to leave the cheese out when freezing my pesto sauce, but after some research, I realized that bit is not necessary.
Homemade Basil Pesto Recipe
- Food processor
- 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
- 1 to 2 clove garlic roughly chopped
- ⅓ cup pine nuts or walnuts, toasted
- Juice of ½ lemon
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for storing
- ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
- Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- Quickly blanch the basil. Prepare a bowl of ice water and set aside near your stove. Fill a small saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Drop the basil leaves in the boiling water and blanch for 5 to 10 seconds or until wilted. Using tongs, transfer the basil leaves to prepared ice water to stop cooking.
- Dry the basil very well. Pick up the basil leaves and wrap them in paper towel and squeeze to wring out all the water.
- Make the pesto. Place the basil, garlic, pine nuts, and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade. With the processor running, slowly pour the extra virgin olive oil. Do not run the processor too long, you want to have a little bit of texture to your basil pesto.
- Stir in the Parmesan cheese. Transfer the basil mixture to a small bowl. Add the Parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix to combine. If needed add a little bit more extra virgin olive oil to mix.
- Use immediately or store for later (see notes for storage).
- Storage. Transfer the pesto to a mason jar. Cover with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil (this creates a seal and prevents air from getting to it). Cover tightly and refrigerate. As you use some of the pesto over time, be sure to replenish the thin layer of extra virgin olive oil on top.It should keep well in the fridge for 1 week or maybe longer.
- To Freeze. You can freeze the pesto in a tightly-closed freezer safe jar, be sure to add a thin layer of olive oil on top still. If you freeze it this way, plan to use the pesto within 1 month. Or, if you want to freeze it in smaller amounts, pour the pesto into ice cube trays and freeze until hard. Once frozen, transfer the pesto cubes to a freezer safe bag and freeze for up to 6 months.