This classic Italian Homemade Basil Pesto Recipe is fresh, full of flavor, and ready in minutes! It’s delicious and made with just 7 simple ingredients including fresh aromatic basil, garlic, rich olive oil, salty Parmesan cheese, and toasted pine nuts. Bright and nutty, this pesto is perfect tossed with pasta, on pizza, or used as a spread. You can make this easy versatile recipe in a snap with a food processor or the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle.
What is pesto?
The origins of pesto actually date back to Roman times when a paste called “moretum” was made by crushing and pounding garlic, herbs, and cheese together. But the popular vibrant green herby basil pesto sauce that most people today associate as pesto originated in the mid-1800s in Genoa, which is the capital city of Liguria, Italy. This type of pesto that we all know and love is also called pesto alla genovese. It’s essentially an uncooked sauce composed of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, hard Italian cheeses, and pine nuts that have been blended into a delicious paste with incredible flavor.
In fact, the word pesto comes from the Italian word “pestare” which means to crush or pound. Traditional pesto was made for centuries by pounding the ingredients into a paste by hand with a mortar and pestle. Yet these days, most pesto is made using a food processor.
You’ll see classic basil pesto as the star ingredient in many different recipes like trofie al pesto, lasagne al pesto, and corzetti pasta with pesto. But you can also mix it into pasta sauce, spread pesto on homemade pizza, or on the bread of your favorite turkey sandwich. It’s a really versatile sauce that will elevate any dish and can be used on almost anything.
What do you need to make this recipe?
Food Processor – Needed to blend the pesto together. You could also use a blender or an immersion blender if you prefer. Just keep in mind that the method is still the same and the oil must be added slowly.
Mortar and Pestle – To make this basil pesto recipe in the most traditional way you will need mortar big enough to hold the sauce and a pestle to grind all the ingredients together.
Box Grater – Needed to freshly grate the hard Italian cheeses.
Rubber Spatula – Makes removing the finished pesto from the food processor a breeze. You may also need to use it to scrape down the sides of your machine.
What ingredients do you need to make this recipe?
2 Garlic Cloves – Cloves from heads of garlic are the best option. Store-bought already peeled garlic will not produce the same flavor.
½ Cup Olive Oil – Use Italian extra virgin olive oil for the most authentic results.
½ Cup Parmesan Cheese – Depending upon your budget the best choice is Parmigiano Reggiano. However, any type of parmesan cheese will do the trick. Grana Padano is another good choice.
2 Tbsp Pecorino Cheese – It’s very similar to parmesan, but it’s made with sheep’s milk instead of cow’s milk. Use Pecorino Fiore Sardo if possible.
2 Tbsp Pine Nuts – Also called pignoli, these are small edible seeds that are rich in flavor. Raw pine nuts will do, but you can also toast pine nuts to add more depth to the pesto. Walnuts and almonds can also be used in place of the pine nuts.
Salt – Add the salt to taste. I typically use between ½ to 1 teaspoon of either kosher salt or sea salt.
How to make pesto with a food processor
1. Start blending the pesto
To begin, make sure the bowl of your food processor isn’t warm. If it is, put it in the fridge to chill for a minute. Next, add the basil, garlic cloves, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese into the bowl of the food processor (photo 1). Then pulse everything together for a few seconds until the ingredients are coarsely chopped (photo 2).
2. Add the Pecorino
Next, add the Pecorino cheese to the food processor (photo 3). Then pulse everything together once more until the pesto is finely minced.
3. Add the olive oil
For this next step, you need to take your time. While the food processor still running, drizzle in the olive oil into the pesto in a slow and steady stream (photo 4). The pesto will start to come together as it becomes smooth and creamy (photo 5). Then when the basil pesto is done, taste it and season it with salt if needed. You can add a bit of black pepper too if you like.
How to make pesto with a mortar and pestle
1. Grind the garlic
To start, you need to grind the fresh garlic cloves with a dash of salt with the mortar and pestle. You can stop once it becomes a chunky garlic puree (photo 6).
2. Add the basil and pine nuts
Next, pound the basil leaves into the ground garlic in batches (photo 7). Continue grinding until a vibrant green sauce similar to a paste forms. Then add the pine nuts (photo 8) and pound the mixture once again until everything is well combined.
3. Add the cheese
First, add one-third of the cheese and pound it into the pesto. Then repeat the process two more times with the other two-thirds of the cheese. With each addition, you need to fully grind the cheese into the pesto before adding the next third (photo 9).
4. Add the olive oil
To complete the pesto, drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil at a time into the pesto and then grind it into the sauce (photo 10). This means that you need to repeat this process 8 times because there are 8 tablespoons in ½ cup. The basil pesto should be smooth and creamy once all the olive oil has been pounded into the mixture.
Use vibrant fresh basil, an Italian extra virgin olive oil, and high-quality Italian cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo for the most authentic flavor.
The basil should be dry before you begin the recipe. Wet herbs do not blend well into pesto.
For the best flavor, only use the leaves of the basil and any black veins should be removed.
Chill the bowl of your food processor to keep the pesto more vibrant green in color. It will taste the same, but heat can make the basil pesto darker in color.
You must add the olive oil in a slow steam or the pesto can separate.
Only season with salt after the pesto is made. The cheeses are very salty and you may find that you don’t need much extra salt or any at all.
It’s important to note that not all basil pesto recipes are the same. The term pesto can refer to other variations of the sauce. This alla genovese pesto recipe is just one of many. For example, some variations such as agliata substitute walnuts for the pine nuts. Others like Sicilian pesto Trapanese use almonds and include tomato as well. There is a spicy version with grilled bell peppers called pesto alla calabrese. And if you want to jump countries the French have a sauce very similar to a nut-free pesto called pistou, which is typically made with just basil, garlic, and oil.
And because pesto is such a versatile sauce this means that you can easily customize your homemade pesto. As long as you follow the recipe and keep the ratio of the herbs, nuts, and oil about the same, your pesto will turn out perfect.
Here are some of my favorite variations:
Fresh Herbs – Add other herbs like mint, parsley, or cilantro. Heck, you can even make pesto without basil. All cilantro pesto is delicious too.
Greens – Leave out part of the basil or all of it and make a pesto using a leafy green vegetable like arugula, kale, or spinach.
Nuts – Aside from almonds and walnuts, pistachios and cashews are other options as well. And though not technically a nut, even peanuts can be used.
Seeds – Make superfood pesto by adding hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds. Yet, I don’t suggest adding chia seeds because they will turn the pesto into jelly.
Citrus – Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to make a bright lemon pesto. And while you’re at it add some of the grated zest too. You can also add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar if you like.
Spicy – To give the sauce some heat, blend in some crushed red pepper flakes. If you’re brave you could even blend in a bit of jalapeno if you are making your pesto with a food processor.
Nutritional Yeast –Make the pesto vegan by omitting the cheese and replacing it with some nutritional yeast flakes, which have a nutty flavor.
If storing in the fridge, you should put your homemade basil pesto in a jar with a tight lid and then cover it with a layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation. This will keep the pesto a bright green color.
However, if you want to freeze your pesto, you can put it in an airtight container and then let it thaw out overnight before using. Or better yet, you can pour the pesto into ice cube trays, let it freeze, and then pop the cubes out of the ice trays into a freezer bag. Then you have little pesto cubes that you can toss into hot pasta or creamy risotto.
How long does homemade pesto last?
Homemade pesto sauce will keep in the fridge for about 6 days and in the freezer for up to 6 months. Unlike store-bought pesto, homemade pesto does not have any preservatives in it so it’s best to freeze whatever leftover pesto you have after about a week.
What does it mean when you emulsify something?
In cooking, to emulsify means to combine two ingredients that typically do not mix together easily. For example, oil and water. So for this classic pesto recipe, we are talking about the olive oil and the water in the basil. This is why the oil must be added slowly.
Why is my pesto so bitter?
If your pesto has a bitter taste this can mean that your olive oil has expired. But it can also mean that you blended the basil too long in the food processor. Fresh basil will eventually break down and turn bitter.