It may be a mere coincidence that the words pesto and presto are only separated by one letter. But I think this Italian sauce is magical, and you can whip up a batch in no time flat.
Even if you’ve never attempted homemade pesto, I’m almost certain you’ve tasted the earthy, verdant paste in some form. It’s often found smeared onto pizza dough or grilled flatbread for a perfect pie with herby undertones or slathered between slices of crusty bread to create a gloriously garlicky deli sandwich.
But that’s just the beginning.
The bright, fresh flavors partner well with practically any savory dish you can come up with. Cheesy scrambled eggs? Abso-freakin-lutely. Tuna melt that’s too one-note? Do it. Chicken with asparagus and pasta that need a little lift? Duh, that one’s a no-brainer.
If making it from scratch sounds intimidating, remember that pesto is one of the most uncomplicated recipes out there and it contains a mere handful of ingredients.
So what’s with all the hype over such a simple sauce?
I think it’s the contrast of delicate herbs paired with sharp raw garlic and salty, hard cheese. It could also be the silky-smooth texture that comes from crushing pine nuts and combining everything with lush olive oil.
I could go on, but since pesto is essentially flawless, let’s just quit while we’re ahead and move on.
The name itself refers to the original method of preparation, wherein the sauce is made by hand in a mortar and processed with a pestle. Derived from the Genoese verb pestâ, which translates to “pound” or “crush,” “pesto” today is synonymous with an herby pounded or blended sauce made with oil and some type of nuts or seeds.
The fact that the ingredients are easily interchangeable, resulting in a sauce that can be produced dozens of ways, makes it a versatile recipe. Here, we’ll focus on the classic preparation.
Italian pesto as we know it today was born in the seaside region of Liguria, but its roots go back much further than that. Ancient Romans were known for enjoying a similar sauce called moretum, and in the Middle Ages, agliata – a paste made of walnuts and garlic – was a Genoan classic.
Basil made its entrance into the recipe later, and use of the leafy herb as a main ingredient was recorded in the 1860s in chef Giovanni Battista Ratto’s culinary text “La Vera Cuciniera Genovese.”
Offering suggestions to use butter in place of olive oil and swap in herbs like parsley or marjoram instead of the basil, his version was inherently flexible. But the Genoese pesto we’re whipping up today is by far the most popular and traditional version.
While I appreciate variations that toss in nutrient-rich greens or even citrus, we’re sticking to the basics here.
Pine nuts can be a little pricey, but their subtle, buttery flavor is worth every penny, and you don’t need many. Basil’s herbal notes are responsible for the intensely fragrant aroma of the fresh sauce, but every flavorful element in the mix holds its own.
On the cheesy side of things, both Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano work well. Pecorino is a sheep’s milk cheese that’s aged for a shorter amount of time, while Parmigiano Reggiano starts with cow’s milk and its preparation features a longer aging process. Both have salty, nutty characteristics, but each carries its own signature flair.
A quick buzz in the blender or food processor, or a few minutes of pounding in your trusty mortar and pestle, and presto! This collection of modest ingredients morphs into something truly special. That’s my kind of magic trick.Print
This smooth, classic pesto made with fresh basil, garlic, and toasted pine nuts is a versatile sauce you can enjoy in so many meals.
- 1/3 cup pine nuts
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt, plus more to taste
- 4 cups packed fresh basil leaves
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (about 3 ounces)
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
- Place a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts, and stir occasionally until golden brown and toasted, about 3 minutes. Immediately transfer the nuts to the food processor.
- Add the garlic and salt to the food processor and pulse until you have a chunky paste. Add the basil and parmesan and pulse until finely minced.
- With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil until the pesto is smooth and velvety, adding 1-2 tablespoons more as needed if it is too thick. Season to taste with additional salt if necessary.
- Use immediately, or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 5 minutes
- Category: Sauce
- Method: Food Processor
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: basil, pesto, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, cheese
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Prep and Measure Ingredients
Gather your pine nuts, garlic, salt, basil, Parmigiano Reggiano, and oil. Grate the cheese if you need to, and measure everything out.
You can substitute Pecorino or Locatelli Romano if you like, or use a blend of half and half. Pecorino is saltier, whereas Parmesan has more of a nutty flavor profile.
Step 2 – Toast the Pine Nuts
Add the pine nuts to a small, dry skillet and place it over medium-low heat. There’s no need to add any oil to the pan to toast the nuts since they’re naturally rich in oil.
Toast, tossing occasionally, until the nuts are golden brown all over. This should take about 3 minutes. Be sure to keep an eye on them, because they can turn quickly from perfectly golden to unpleasantly burnt.
Immediately transfer the nuts to your food processor or high-speed blender so they don’t continue to brown and become bitter. You can also opt to use a mortar and pestle if you’d prefer to prepare your pesto by hand.
Step 3 – Blend Ingredients
Add the garlic and salt to the food processor and pulse until the blended ingredients have the consistency of a chunky paste.
I urge you to stick your nose in and take a whiff. This is by far my favorite part of the process.
Scatter in the basil leaves and parmesan and pulse until all ingredients are thoroughly combined and minced.
Step 4 – Emulsify with Oil
With the machine running, slowly begin pouring in the oil. The pesto will come together and form a velvety sauce, and adding the oil gradually in a thin stream helps it to emulsify.
If you like it on the runnier side, you can add a few more tablespoons of oil. Season to taste for salt.
To keep the basil from oxidizing and getting dark if you don’t plan to enjoy all of your pesto immediately, you can top it with an additional drizzle of oil to cover the surface or place plastic wrap directly over the surface of the sauce before refrigerating in an airtight container.
You can store this pesto in the fridge for up to 1 week. Leftovers can also be frozen until solid in ice cube trays and topped with a lid or transferred to an airtight container and frozen, to use what you need in smaller portions without having to defrost the full batch.
Creating the Perfect Paste
To make a raw sauce like this one, choose high-quality ingredients that can each be enjoyed on their own.
In more blunt terms: this isn’t the place for that store-brand jug of oil you got on sale. Save that for sauteing, and pull out the nice extra-virgin olive oil for this application, where its fruity flavor will shine.
Will you stick with the basics, or add your own personal spin? Share your saucy secrets in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
Once you’ve mastered this recipe, don’t call it a day. Try these tasty riffs on the classic pesto next:
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Shanna Mallon on September 24, 2014. Last updated on March 16, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”