I am passionate about pesto. My grandparents, who spent their retirement years traveling through the Mediterranean, first introduced me to Italian cooking. Fresh basil pesto was one of the first Italian sauces I ever tasted in my grandmother’s kitchen. From day one, I was hooked. A well made pesto is a flavor symphony – herby, garlicky, aromatic, and nutty. In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about making an authentic batch of Italian pesto.
Like my grandparents, in the past decade I’ve had the good fortune to travel extensively. When my husband and I explored Italy and the Tuscan countryside, nearly every dish we tasted was made with garden-fresh herbs. It seemed like wherever we went in the Italian Riviera, the smell of herbs was in the air—in particular, basil. I wouldn’t be surprised if basil is considered the “national herb” of Italy. I tasted it everywhere– in salads, pasta dishes, soups, bruschetta, and in other more complex dishes. The earthy, bright and pungent flavor of basil tastes like an Italian summer.
What is Pesto?
Pesto, a thick sauce made from fresh basil, is served throughout Italy, especially in the Liguria (Genoa) region where it originated.
Here is what the “Oxford Companion to Food” has to say about it:
Pesto, the pride of the great Italian sea part of Genoa, is a thick sauce which is excellent with pasta or fish. It does not require cooking, but is one of those recipes where you have to add olive oil carefully and gradually to a mixture which you have pounded with a mortar; the pounded ingredients are garlic, pine nut kernels, grated parmesan cheese (or Sardo from Sardinia), salt, and fresh basil leaves. The flavor of basil is dominant.
Traditionally pesto is made just as the Oxford Companion describes with fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, and sometimes grated parmesan or pecorino cheese. However, there are many variations of pesto throughout Italy. Some versions incorporate sun dried tomatoes, different nuts, and a variety of herbs to change the flavor of the spread.
While I have a particular fondness for traditional basil pesto, it’s fun to get creative and try new flavor combinations. Once you get the basic idea, pesto can be a really versatile cooking concept that will add an herby fresh flavor to your everyday cooking!
How to Make Authentic Italian Pesto
Pesto is actually the word for “pounded,” because the proper way to make it is pounding/grinding it with a heavy mortar and pestle. Most home cooks don’t “pound” their pesto anymore because it’s laborious and time-consuming. Incidentally, there is a good reason to do so. Using mortar and pestle breaks open the cells of the basil and releases more flavor. It also allows the various ingredients to meld better, as they are mashed into one another.
The drawback of a mortar and pestle? It’s work. It takes elbow grease. You really need to want it! But it’s worth the effort in the end.
I use this mortar and pestle, which I purchased from Italy. It only took a few days to ship to the U.S. It’s pricey, but it’s the real deal. This is what Italian chefs and pesto connoisseurs use to make their sauce. It’s quite large and heavy, which means you can make a nice big batch without splashing basil juice all over your kitchen.
Don’t want to go through the hard work of making pesto by hand? Don’t feel too bad. I have it on good authority from multiple Italian cooking friends that they also make pesto using a variety of devices, from food processor to blender. A mortar and pestle is the way to go if you have the energy for it. However, you can make a perfectly respectable pesto using an immersion blender, a tool that most of us have in our kitchens.
Why make pesto with an immersion blender, rather than a food processor or blender? Immersion blending allows the herbs to be blended far from the motor heat source, giving a more even chop and a fresher flavor.
I’ve given instructions below for making pesto with a mortar and pestle, as well as an immersion blender. Either method will produce an aromatic, delightful pesto sauce. Some chefs swear by mortar and pestle, but the immersion blender produces a very respectable batch of pesto.
Important Tips for Cooking with Pesto
- If you’re adding cheese to your pesto, do so just before you’re ready to serve. If you’re tossing your pesto with pasta or making a sauce, grate the cheese and toss it into the pasta separately to avoid having it become “gloppy.” I usually don’t add the cheese unless I’m serving the pesto as a spread on an appetizer platter, or as a sauce for fish.
- I sometimes use roasted garlic in my pesto because I like the mellower flavor, plus it’s easier on the stomach. Use raw garlic for a stronger flavor and more “bite.” You can also use a combination of raw and roasted garlic. To learn how to roast garlic, click here.
- Pesto can be made ahead before serving. Cover the thick sauce with a layer of extra virgin olive oil and refrigerate; more storage tips below.
- If you’re serving pesto as a pasta sauce, add a little bit of the hot pasta cooking water to the pesto to create a more liquid sauce. Pesto sauce is delicious over linguini or angel hair (capellini) pasta.
Cleaning and Storing Basil Leaves for Pesto
Basil is a finicky little herb. It’s very easily bruised – that’s why you’ll sometimes see black marks on basil leaves. Basil leaves need to be treated with a tender touch to ensure they keep their beauty and freshness.
The best way to store basil is to keep the leaves attached to the stems. Trim the bottom end of the stems and place them in a vase or mason jar of cool water. Remove any herb leaves that would fall below the waterline. Keep the vase at room temperature. Basil likes sun, but you don’t want them in full blast heat – it will last longest in a moderate temperature room with plenty of sunlight.
To clean basil without bruising, fill a sink with cold water. Submerge your basil in the water and gently agitate with your hands to loosen any dirt or debris from the stems and leaves. Leave it for a couple of minutes so dirt will sink to the bottom. Lift the basil out of the water, allowing water to drip off. Place the herbs on a rack or on towels to drip dry.
If you notice any leaves with stubborn dirt or mud, you can do another rinse under gently running cool water. Make sure it’s a slow stream, nothing harsh.
I have a dish rack that I use for drip-drying herbs. I place the basil in the dish rack and leave it for 30-60 minutes, shaking it gently every 10 minutes or so, until it’s dry. This method ensures that the basil stays bruise-free and fresh, while cleaning it of any potentially harmful residue.
How to Store Homemade Pesto
Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to a week. Be sure to cover it with a thin layer of olive oil to keep the air off of the surface. This prolongs shelf life and helps keep it fresh.
For longer storage, freeze pesto in ice cube trays, pop out the pesto cubes, and store them in a freezer-safe container until ready to use. You can also freeze pesto in a Ziploc bag or reusable freezer bag. Lay bags of pesto flat on a baking sheet and squeeze as much air out as possible, flattening the pesto with your hands or gently with a rolling pin until as thin as possible. Freeze, then you can store the pesto bags on their own (without the baking sheet) piled or stacked. If you’ve managed to make it very thin, breaking off a portion to use is easy – even a very small amount – as needed.
I recommend freezing pesto without cheese. If you want to add cheese, do so after thawing just before using, adding an equal amount of grated cheese to thawed pesto. Add olive oil as needed to liquify the texture.
Ways to Serve Pesto
Here is a list of ways that you can use pesto to add fresh, herby flavor to your everyday cooking.
- Use pesto as a pasta sauce, as in my Ligurian Pasta Trenette recipe.
- Roast or grill fresh vegetables, then spread pesto on top – or marinate vegetable skewers with it.
- Use as a sandwich or panini spread.
- Spread it on fish before grilling, or use it to top pan seared fish.
- Use it as a meat marinade. The version without cheese is great for marinating chicken.
- Dilute with olive oil, add lemon juice, and drizzle it on your favorite salad to make a dressing.
- Spread it on pizza dough with parmesan and bake.
- Mix it into mayonnaise to create an herbed basil mayo spread.
- Stir it into soup for added flavor.
- Add it to a vegetable omelet.
- Mix it into a fresh heirloom tomato salad.
- Add to cooked rice or risotto.
- Blend it into hummus for an herby basil hummus spread.
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- 2 cups fresh basil leaves removed from stems - buds and flowers discarded, firmly packed in measuring cup (3.5 ounces basil if weighing with leaves and stems, or 2.75 ounces basil if weighing only leaves separate from stems)
- 1-2 cloves garlic, or 3-4 cloves roasted garlic
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, more or less as needed
- 4-5 tbsp grated pecorino or parmesan cheese, more or less to taste (optional - fresh grated is best)
Mortar and PestleTo make pesto the most traditional and authentic way, you’ll want to use a mortar and pestle. The abrasive action of the pestle against the mortar breaks open the cells of the basil, releasing more juices and flavors than when using a blender or food processor. The ingredients also blend together better in the mortar, creating a more vibrant flavor and better texture. It does take elbow grease and upper arm strength, and it is not the fastest way to make pesto, but the enhanced flavor is certainly worth the extra effort. Note: Pesto is a process that takes practice. Even with the same list of ingredients, no two batches of pesto will ever turn out exactly the same. You really need to taste and smell as you go, adjusting the flavors to balance them. I've given very "basic" amounts here, but it's really Important for you to taste and try - that way you'll get a flavor that works best for you!
To Make Pesto Using a Mortar and Pestle:
- If you are using roasted garlic, roast your cloves prior to making your pesto. For instructions, click here: How to Roast Garlic. If using raw garlic, be sure to cut out the green inner part of each clove with the tip of a sharp knife. Also plan to give yourself some time to separate the basil leaves from the stems - it takes a while to complete this preparatory step, but it's necessary. You really don't want stems or flower buds ending up in your pesto.
- In this post, you'll see the mortar and pestle that I own. It’s a splurge, for sure. It was shipped from Italy in record time. I cherish it and use it all the time. The maker offers many different sizes. I recommend using at least a 7 inch for pesto, and at least 8 inch is even better. For reference, mine is 9 inches.
- First, add your garlic and a very small pinch of salt to the mortar. Use 1 clove for a typical pesto, or 2 cloves for a more pungent, garlicky pesto. Use roasted cloves for a slightly sweet pesto, devoid of sharpness, that is easier to digest.
- Use the pestle to pound and grind the garlic into a smooth paste, coating the interior of the mortar with smears of garlic.
- Next, begin adding your basil. I always add basil early on in the pesto process, because it is the hardest ingredient to pulverize, and you will need the scraping traction of the interior of the mortar walls to help break it down. Start with about a third of your pesto leaves, and another very small pinch of salt.
- Grind the leaves against the walls of the mortar, using a rotational movement of the mortar and pestle to pulverize them as best you can. It will take some time and patience. Have a small silicone spatula handy to scrape the pestle, as well as the edges of the mortar, from time to time. Juice will begin to collect in the bottom of the mortar as the cells of the basil get broken down. Continue adding more leaves, repeating the process until all of the basil has been broken down.
- You're looking for your basil to be mostly pulverized, without pieces of leaves or stems in the mix. If it doesn't seem to be breaking down fast enough, add a little more salt - but careful, if you're adding cheese later the pesto can turn overly salty very quickly.
- At this point, add your pine nuts. You can add them straight to the mortar and grind them into the basil, which is what I usually do. Some cooks like to hand-chop the pine nuts, then stir them in for a more rustic texture.
- As you continue to grind, the pine nuts will give a slightly creamy texture to the pesto. By now, your pesto will be quite thick.When your pine nuts are fully incorporated and broken down to very small bits, you're ready to add fresh lemon juice. Stir in about a tablespoon of juice. This will brighten the flavor of your pesto. The lemon also helps to keep it fresh and bright green.
- Now it's time to stir in your olive oil. Use your spatula for this step. I usually use about 1/4 cup or so for a batch of this size. You'll want to add olive oil until the pesto is glossy with a lovely sheen. The oil should almost pool on the surface of the pesto.
- Scrape the sides of the mortar with a spatula and stir well. At this point, you have a basic, authentic pesto - about 1/2 cup or so (or around 3/4 cup if you've added cheese). If your pesto is cheese-free, add salt to taste at this point - the salt really enhances the flavor and helps to balance everything.Some people like a thicker pesto, while others prefer a more liquid pesto for drizzling. If you’d like a more liquid texture, add more olive oil by the tablespoon until you have the desired texture. Your pesto is now ready to serve.
To Make Pesto with an Immersion Blender
- You'll need your immersion blender and a half gallon mason jar. Add your basil, garlic, lemon juice, 1/4 cup olive oil, and a pinch of salt to the jar.Use your immersion blender to begin pulverizing the ingredients inside the jar, moving the blender up and down and in swirling motions to chop up the ingredients.
- Scrape the blender with a spoon periodically to free up the blades.
- Continue blending for a few minutes, until the basil is very well chopped with no stem bits or leaves present.
- Add the pine nuts to the jar and continue blending until well incorporated. I save this part for last, so that the pine nuts don't become so pulverized that they take on the texture of nut butter. I like them broken down to little creamy bits, so that the pesto retains some texture.At this point, you'll have about 1/2 cup of pesto. If you're keeping the pesto dairy free, add salt to taste at this point (the salt really helps the flavors to pop). Don't add salt now if you're adding cheese.
- Some people like a thicker pesto, while others prefer a more liquid pesto for drizzling. If you’d like a more liquid texture, add more olive oil by the tablespoon until you have the desired texture. Add more salt to taste, if desired. Your pesto is now ready to serve.