Fresh Basil Pesto is an easy and super flavorful Italian pasta sauce that is often served over linguini. This is a classic basil pesto recipe that uses a handful of ingredients such as fresh basil leaves, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and more.
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If you ever get a bounty of fresh basil, one great way to use it up is to make a batch of your own Pesto! Using fresh herbs in your recipes gives them the best flavor (A fun reason to start an herb garden).
What is Pesto?
Traditional Pesto is a thick, green sauce that is basil-based (using the leaves of the basil plant). It originated in Genoa, the capital of Liguria, Italy.
Pesto traditionally consists of basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, salt, and grated Parmesan cheese (or other type of Italian hard cheese, such as Pecorino romano), all blended with earthy olive oil. Also called Pesto alla Genovese.
What Does Pesto Taste Like?
Pesto sauce tastes herby and bright from the basil, and rich from the buttery pine nuts, and a little salty and rich from the parmesan cheese. It tastes garlicky, with a sort of "grassy earthiness" from good extra-virgin olive oil.
Homemade pesto tastes so much better than store-bought pesto! And it is easy to make.
What is Pesto Used On?
This homemade pesto sauce is delicious over linguine, which is the most common way to use it. Also try fresh pesto on other pastas, or spread on thick slices of crusty bread (one of my favorite things!).
There are many other ways to use this versatile sauce, such as adding some to soups, or to spaghetti sauce for extra flavor, or use as a pizza sauce, add to cooked scrambled eggs, serve over gnocchi, add to salad dressings, or on baked potatoes.
What is the Best Basil to Use for Pesto?
Sweet Basil (or Sweet Genovese Basil) is a common variety and what you'll find most often in the grocery stores. It works great! There are other varieties of basil, such as Thai Basil, though I haven't tested that variety.
Can the Basil Stems be Used in Pesto?
Yes, use the small stems, but avoid the larger, thicker stems, as well as not using the buds. They are not pleasant tasting, in my opinion.
A Note About Measuring the Basil for This Recipe
- Since we don't use the larger stems in this recipe, you want to get more basil than you think you may need. The stems are heavy, and can throw off the measurement.
- For example: I purchased a 3-ounce package of fresh basil. After taking the leaves off of the larger stems, I was left with about 1.8 ounces of useable leaves for the recipe. That is about 2 cups, slightly packed (See photo). It could be that this batch of basil just had an unusual amount of larger stems in it, I'm not sure. But I am glad I bought the larger package!
- If you do ever fall short of the needed amount of basil, just reduce the other ingredients a little. This recipe is very forgiving. I have tested it multiple ways, and it always turns out delicious!
Do the Pine Nuts Need to be Toasted?
No they don't, but if you can, try it. Many traditional pesto recipes call for raw pine nuts, but I like the buttery flavor of them after they have been lightly toasted in my cast iron pan.
Toasting pine nuts lessens the pine "bite" and brings out the natural oils for a more buttery flavor. You will still taste the pine, but it won't be as sharp.
I have tested it both ways, and I love both! I just do what I feel like in the moment.
Should Pesto Be Chunky or Smooth?
I think a good homemade basil pesto has some texture to it. So slightly chunky is where I land on that! Using a blender or a food processor, and pulsing several times is a good way to achieve a good texture. Many people like to use a mortar and pestle to get the texture they prefer.
Ingredients Needed for Basil Pesto
- Pine Nuts - Toasting them is optional.
- Fresh Basil Leaves - No larger stems or buds.
- Fresh Garlic Cloves - As you like. You can make pesto without it.
- Grated Parmesan Cheese - Get the freshest you can, or grate it yourself.
- Kosher Salt, Black Pepper - Just a pinch. Also optional.
- Good Quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil - This is so important for incredible flavor. Many of the olive oils sold today are fakes, so look them up to make sure you are getting the real thing!
- Lemon Zest or Lemon Juice - For brightness, and keeping the green color longer. Optional.
- Red Pepper Flakes - for some heat. Optional.
• Blender or Food Processor, or a Mortar and Pestle (I am not the one to instruct you on the mortar and pestle. I'd go watch a video, haha!).
• Spatula - for scraping down the sides of the food processor bowl (or blender).
How to Make This Easy Basil Pesto Recipe
Toast the Pine Nuts
• Add the pine nuts to a dry skillet and turn on medium-low heat. Stir the nuts occasionally and watch them carefully as they tend to burn easily. Once they are a light golden color, remove from the heat and set aside.
Make the Pesto
• To a blender or bowl of a food processor, (or use a mortar and pestle) add the pine nuts, garlic cloves, basil leaves, salt, pepper, and lemon juice (if using).
• Pulse a several times to start breaking up the basil. Scrape down sides of bowl using a spatula.
• Turn on the blender/food processor to a low speed and slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a steady stream (my food processor has a hole in the lid for this purpose).
Stop the machine and scrape to get any larger chunks loose and pulse several times until you have a slightly chunky texture (or as smooth as you like), and the olive oil is very well incorporated. It should be thick, but not too thick. Add just a little more olive oil if too thick.
• Add the parmesan cheese and pulse just a few more times to incorporate the cheese.
There will be a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto after it sits a while. This is normal, just stir it and it will be fine.
How to Keep Your Pesto Green
Keeping pesto a bright, vibrant green color is a goal for many pesto makers. Here are my tips:
• Blanch the Basil: After separating the leaves from the stems, put them in a strainer and dip them in a pot of boiling water for just a moment. This is called "blanching". Then dry them and make the pesto recipe as normal.
• Use lemon Juice: Adding some lemon juice to the pesto helps retain the green color.
• Coat in Olive Oil: A layer of olive oil on top of the pesto will help retain the color, though it may not be as vibrant. But it does help.
How Much Pesto to use for 1 Pound of Pasta?
- This recipe make about 3/4-1 cup of basil pesto sauce. It should the perfect amount of pesto for 16 oz of pasta (also use some of the pasta water from cooking your pasta to make the sauce!).
- You can add less for a milder flavor, or make and use more for a stronger flavor, or if cooking more pasta.
- If you want a big batch of pesto, just multiply the recipe. Back in the day we used to have "pesto parties" where we would make big batches of pesto with our friends. Then we would divvy it up and everyone had yummy pesto to freeze!
• Refrigerate your fresh basil pesto immediately in an airtight container if not using right away. I like to store in small mason jars for up to a week.
• Freeze Your Pesto! - Pesto can be frozen for the winter months, or for any future use. It freezes very well.
My favorite way to store my basil pesto recipes is to freeze small portions in ice cube trays covered in plastic wrap, then transfer the frozen pesto cubes to a freezer bag.
Add to soups, sauces, dips, and other recipes when you want a burst of fresh flavor (it's great in spaghetti sauce!).
Recipes You Can Add Pesto To
Did you make this recipe? Please leave me a comment below with a star rating so I know how you liked it!
Fresh Basil Pesto
- Blender or Food Processor or a Mortar and Pestle
- ⅓ cup Pine Nuts (lightly toasted)
- 2 cloves Garlic
- 2 cups Fresh Basil Leaves (approx. 40-50 g)
- 1 teaspoon Fresh Lemon Juice (optional)
- ⅛ teaspoon Kosher Salt
- ⅛ teaspoon Black Pepper
- ½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- ½ cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
Toast the Pine Nuts (optional)
- Add the pine nuts to a dry skillet and turn on medium-low heat. Stir the nuts occasionally and watch them carefully as they tend to burn easily. Once they are a light golden color, remove from the heat and set aside.
Make the Pesto
- To a blender or food processor, (or use a mortar and pestle) add the pine nuts, garlic cloves, basil leaves, salt, pepper, and lemon juice (if using). Pulse a several times to start breaking up the basil. Scrape down with a spatula.
- Turn on the blender/food processor to a low speed and slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a steady stream (my blender has a hole in the lid for this purpose). Stop the machine and scrape sides of the bowl to get any larger chunks loose and pulse several times until you have a slightly chunky texture (or as smooth as you like), and the olive oil is very well incorporated. It should be thick, but not too thick (see photos in post). Add a little more olive oil if too thick.
- Add the parmesan cheese and pulse just a few more times to incorporate the cheese.
- Refrigerate immediately in an airtight container if not using right away. Or freeze in an ice cube tray and transfer frozen cubes to a freezer baggie. Use in soups, sauces, and dips.