How to Make Pesto | Yummly

How to Make Pesto

This easy no-cook sauce — as striking in color as it is in taste — comes together in less than half an hour. Learn how to make pesto sauce from scratch and use it in a variety of recipes, from pizza and pasta to salmon and sammies.

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Speedy Fresh Basil Pesto; Photograph by Brittany Conerly

I was 21 and it was summer the first time I made pesto. At the urging of a friend I’d cleverly talked my not-quite-qualified way into being a personal chef for a grumpy, well-to-do lady on Nantucket Island, and was winging it by repeating two mantras I’d made up: First, “Anyone can follow a recipe,” which it turns out is not always true if the recipe stinks, and second, thanks to her unlimited food budget: “If you buy good ingredients and don’t burn it, it’ll probably taste good.” That part I still find to be true.   

One afternoon she demanded pesto pasta; I smiled and replied, “Sure, no problem,” while noting with a small panic that I had no idea how this summery sauce was made. Everyone loves homemade pesto but few are sure of what’s in it. I was no exception — and this was just before Google existed. Eek! But after a silent frantic search, a local Italian cookbook on a high shelf delivered salvation with a classic pesto recipe that sang of summer, and I’ve never looked back.

If you follow this easy how-to guide and use the fabulous recipes below, summer’s verdant edible song can be yours for the singing … err, licking, too.  

Jump ahead to:

Pesto questions, answered >>

Step-by-step: How to make pesto >>

Fabulous pesto recipes >>

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Pesto questions, answered 

No one turns down a luscious meal that’s a cheerful basil-green and packs a complex umami punch. Get it right with the guidance below.

What is pesto made of?

Pesto ingredients are infinitely versatile and, like the brilliance of many Italian recipes, can be customized to use what you have on hand. Only have sunflower seeds or cashews? Use them. Out of Parmesan? Use pecorino romano, or even vegan-friendly nutritional yeast. The recipe for classic Pesto alla Genovese entails:

  • fresh basil leaves (though you could add other fresh herbs or even some feathery carrot tops)

  • raw garlic

  • a handful of pine nuts (which are costly and easily subbed out for walnuts or pistachios)

  • good olive oil (since it’s a raw sauce, bust out your good bottle)

  • freshly grated Parmesan cheese (forgo the tasteless sawdust in the green canister)

  • salt

  • usually some part of a lemon, whether the juice or the zest, to ensure it tastes bright and the emerald color doesn’t dull too much when the sauce is exposed to air

How do you store pesto, and how long does it last?

Pop leftover pesto in the fridge. Since it can turn plastic containers a pale green, use a glass jar if you have one (a clean empty mustard jar works well). The pulverized basil at the top can turn a dull olive color when exposed to air, even in a container; if that bothers you feel free to smooth a layer of plastic wrap right onto the sauce or go old school and pour a thin layer of olive oil on top to keep air away before adding the lid. 

Homemade pesto stored in an airtight container will last about a week in the fridge, but if it smells off or has mold on top at any time, toss it. While raw garlic has many health benefits, after seven days it can turn rancid and give you botulism, even with proper refrigeration and the preservative properties of olive oil. But fear not, there is another option: freezing pesto.

How do you freeze pesto?

Pesto freezes beautifully; put a tablespoon in each pocket of an ice cube tray and pop it in the freezer. After they freeze solid, pop each cube out and toss them all into a freezer-safe storage bag. Voila! Throw a cube into a red sauce that tastes dull, stir one into a soup full of leafy greens come winter, or whisk one into a quick pan sauce for sautéed fish just before serving — pesto’s uses are only limited by your imagination.

Step-by-step: How to make pesto 

Whip up the versatile sauce following these easy steps. We walk you through our Speedy Fresh Basil Pesto recipe

Step 1: Gather your equipment

In the old country a mortar and pestle would be used to pound the sauce together, and some still prefer this method. Modern cooks appreciate the speed and precision of a food processor. You’ll also need a liquid measuring cup as well as a 1-cup dry measuring cup, zester if you’re using lemon rind, rubber spatula for scraping down the sides of the food processor bowl, a small sharp knife, and measuring spoons. 

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Step 2: Gather your pesto ingredients

If your mise-en-place game is strong, a pesto recipe is a snap to prepare. Gather fresh basil (three packed cups of leaves uses most of a 4-ounce clamshell of fresh sprigs), good olive oil, pine nuts, a clove of raw garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt, lemon zest (if using; otherwise fresh lemon juice), and some freshly ground pepper never hurts. 

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Step 3: Add basil, garlic, pine nuts, lemon zest, and salt to bowl of a food processor

Add everything to the food processor bowl except the olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Pulse to combine for 30 seconds to 1 minute, depending how smooth or rough you like your pesto. (Note: If the sauce is covering the sides of the bowl, use a rubber spatula to scrape the sauce back to the bottom of the bowl before adding the olive oil.)

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Step 4: Add the olive oil

In a thin, steady stream add the olive oil through the tube while the processor is running to emulsify the sauce. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again.

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Step 5: Add the Parmesan cheese

Add the Parmesan cheese directly to the bowl of the food processor. Cover and run the processor for about 30 seconds to incorporate the cheese into the sauce. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again.

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Step 6: Scrape your homemade pesto into a small bowl and enjoy

Your homemade pesto is ready to be enjoyed on a crusty toasted slice of baguette, or used in one of the recipes below. Congratulations! You did it!

Photograph by Rachael Nusbaum

Fabulous pesto recipes

These are excellent pesto recipes you’ll turn to again and again

Speedy Fresh Basil Pesto 

Yummly Original

This homemade pesto recipe has it all: fresh basil, garlic cloves, pine nuts, your fruitiest olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and just a touch of lemon zest for some soft zing in the final sauce. It’s the ultimate summer umami bomb, and thankfully does not require any heat in the kitchen to prepare. This is the moment your food processor has been waiting for. A whiz, a scrape, and a blast and there you have it: summer’s most interesting pasta sauce, sandwich spread, and bold spoonful of garnish for just about anything off the grill.  

5-Ingredient Pesto Baked Salmon

Yummly Original

When you’ve done your future self a big favor by making delicious homemade pesto and popping it in the fridge, suddenly whipping up a gourmet dinner at the last minute becomes no big deal. This recipe has only five ingredients and takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. Be sure to spread the pesto evenly over the entire top of the filets; it’ll form a deep green crust that helps keep the fish moist as it bakes. While the salmon is in the oven you can sauté some simple greens in a little garlic and olive oil, and steam some couscous — stir in a little pesto and lemon juice before serving and voila! An elegant meal for four is served.

Chicken Pesto Naan Pizza

Yummly Original

Purchased naan makes a superb pizza crust when you’re in a hurry and there’s no time to toss dough from scratch. And because each one is an individual serving, the cuteness factor is strong and it’s a great recipe for kids to help prepare. Pesto stands in for red sauce in this recipe with delicious results, and if you pull some meat off a rotisserie chicken the recipe comes together in no time. A chopped tomato or a handful of halved cherry tomatoes gives a pop of color and acid. This crowd pleaser will definitely make it into your weeknight rotation.  

Prosciutto and Pesto Panini

These decadent sandwiches have an explosion of lush textures and interesting flavors that make them engaging from the first bite through until you nibble the last corner. Roasted red peppers provide a supple counterpoint against the melted cheese, and salty prosciutto meets its match in the spread of pesto across the top of the ciabatta roll. A handful of peppery arugula cuts the richness and adds a spicy kick. This is how a great sandwich made with your best pesto recipe is supposed to taste.    

Tomato-Pesto Frittata

Use your prettiest tomatoes — heirlooms if you can get them — to create this edible piece of art that’s simple to put together but elegant enough to serve for brunch or a delightful vegetarian dinner. Mixing the pesto into the egg mixture gives the frittata bright basil flavor and a shade of springtime green that’s hard to resist, and beautiful rounds of tomato are offset by delicate clusters of fresh mozzarella on top. 

Perfect Pesto Pasta  

Yummly Original

This zippy pesto pasta dish showcases Italy’s greenest sauce at its finest: Lemon juice keeps it kicking, extra-virgin olive oil keeps it delicate, and the scent that rises from crushed handfuls of fresh basil comfort us with summer’s untamed generosity. Using cooking water from the pasta (set some aside right before you drain it) to swish out the food processor ensures the sauce will cling to the tiny bowties and that not one lick of this pesto recipe will be wasted. Serve it as a side, or toss some grilled shrimp and cubes of heirloom tomato on top to make a bright and easy summer dinner. Chill overnight if you’re looking for a cold pesto pasta salad to make ahead for a potluck.

Pesto Proscuitto Breakfast Sandwich

Elevate your breakfast sandwich to the next level with homemade pesto and you’ll be delighted with the upgrade. If you don’t have prosciutto handy substitute your favorite breakfast meat — bacon or Black Forest ham would both be delicious in this breakfast pesto recipe, where the Parmesan in the sauce provides all the sharp cheesiness needed. Ciabatta provides a crunchy crust, and half a roasted red bell pepper adds a smoky note that’ll definitely inspire you to rise and shine.

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