Healthy and Delicious Vegan Pesto

This pesto seriously makes me crazy!

Vertical image of a glass jar with pesto, and text on a colorful background.

I’ve always known that pesto isn’t that great for you. I mean, it’s got a ton of oil in it and usually a bunch of cheese.

And you all know me… I’m totally okay with eating healthy oils, and I do like my fair share of cheese. But the sauce always felt like a really decadent food that I didn’t want to make a habit of eating regularly.

Until now!

I have cracked the code to a healthy yet still delicious topping. What’s the secret?

Cashew cream.

Vertical image of a white bowl with pasta, mushrooms, and a green sauce.

Cashew cream is so easy to make (just soak raw cashews in hot water and puree!), and it’s so versatile. I’ve used it to make hearty roasted beet soup, I’ve used it in a chipotle sauce for veggie tacos, and I’ve used it to make vegan caramels.

And now, it’s in this sauce.

Vertical closeup image of pasta mixed with sauce, mushrooms, and topped with a cheese garnish.

When I made this recipe, my goal was to make it a much healthier version than the traditional high-fat, high-caloric sauce, without sacrificing any of that creamy texture and bright flavor.

I eliminated the Parmesan cheese and pine nuts, and heavily reduced the amount of olive oil. The cashew cream in the recipe is the perfect replacement for all of these ingredients.

Vertical closeup image of a jar of pesto on a white surface.

This makeover was totally transformative: my sauce has roughly less than half the calories and fat of a typical recipe.

And tastes heavenly.

The best thing is that you would never know it’s this healthy. Never, ever. It’s so creamy, fresh, and herbaceous with fresh basil and garlic – just like the traditional sauce. Not even your Italian grandmother would know!

Well, maybe your Italian grandmother would know…

Vertical image of pasta mixed with mushrooms and a green sauce in a white bowl with a fork.

But for most of us, this swap is one that is totally behind-the-scenes, meaning your dinner guests never have to know that the creamy, flavorful sauce on the pasta you’re serving up is actually really healthy compared to the regular stuff.

The only thing that someone might notice is the lack of oil that pools at the bottom of the dish. But I don’t think that’s something anyone is really going to miss.

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Horizontal closeup image of freshly made pesto.

Healthy Vegan Pesto


  • Author: Raquel Smith
  • Prep Time: 40 minutes
  • Total Time: 40 minutes
  • Yield: 5 servings
  • Category: Sauce
  • Method: Food Processor
  • Cuisine: Vegan

Description

Fresh and healthy vegan pesto swaps out pine nuts, cheese, and oil with something just as flavorful: cashew cream.


Ingredients


Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend in a food processor until creamy.
  2. Use immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, topped with a thin film of olive oil to prevent browning. 

Notes

*To make cashew cream, combine 3/4 cup hot water with 1/2 cup cashews and let sit for 30 minutes, or up to 8 hours. In a food processor or blender, blend the cashews with their soaking liquid in 30-second increments until creamy, about 2-3 minutes total blending time. This makes about 1 cup. Reserve the other half, stored in the refrigerator.

Keywords: pesto, vegan, healthy, basil, cashew cream, sauce

How Will You Use This Bright Sauce?

There are so many options for using this vegan version of one of my favorite condiments! Here are some of my favorite ideas:

Horizontal image of a glass jar of pesto.

The other night, I served it in a really simple dish of pasta with sauteed mushrooms and veggie sausages. It was super easy, delicious, and totally doable on a weeknight. Success!

Let me know comments below how you decide to use it, after you rate the recipe!

Photos by Raquel Smith, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on March 3, 2016. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone. Last updated: October 17, 2018 at 10:15 am.

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.

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About Raquel Smith

Raquel is a whole foods enthusiast, an avid mountain biker, and a dog lover. She works by day at Food Blogger Pro and formerly maintained her food blog "My California Roots" (now being merged into Foodal).

This healthy vegan pesto has half the calories of traditional pesto, but is just as creamy and flavorful. We swap out pine nuts, cheese, and oil with cashew cream. With lemon juice and a little bit of cayenne pepper, you'll want this on everything. Get the recipe now on Foodal. #pesto #healthyrecipes #vegan #foodal

15 thoughts on “Healthy and Delicious Vegan Pesto

  1. I’m not vegan, but dairy has been known to give me trouble as well, so I appreciate this recipe. And it’s definitely nice to have something like this to serve my vegan friends. I would never have thought of pumpkin seeds, so I’m extra curious to try it out.

  2. Pesto is my favorite sauce and yes I have been to Genoa and it is the best there. A vegan and vegetarian pesto is so easy to make and I wish more places used it. It’s great to have a simple recipe and to have it without the cheese. I like mine quite chunky and raw, how the Italians do it.

  3. This sounds like a nice update to traditional pesto. I love the inclusion of pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, as well as the pink Himalayan sea salt, all yummy and delicious. I don’t mind using olive oil, since it’s healthy and always seems to improve the recipe whenever I include it. I’m not vegan, but this is a great sounding recipe I will consider making.

  4. Using a food processor is definitely a great time saver, but pesto is one of those things that tastes best when prepared by hand. I’d try this recipe out in a pinch, though, especially if I was serving someone that preferred vegan items!

  5. I have vegan friends too so it’s always good to find another dinner party idea – my vegan selection is running a little thin so thanks for this one Sarah, I’ll be trying it out withing the month and I’ll let you know how it went!

  6. I try to eat vegan as much as possible, but it can be hard finding things that aren’t salads or tofu! Recipes like this are a lifesaver. I love anything basil related, and this looks great. I’m also half Italian – isn’t it just the best to have some nice pesto with good bread? I think this recipe is totally doable and worth the expense. It would also make a great gift. Who wouldn’t love to get a jar of homemade, vegan pesto sauce?!

  7. I have zero issues with dairy, thank God because I absolutely love it and feel for the people that have to do away with it because it brings trouble to their system. I just can’t do with not having some type of dairy everyday, whether it’s cheese, milk or whatnot.

    I currently work at Swiss Chalet where they actually use pesto mayo and basil pesto to put sandwiches and pasta meals together, so as soon as I saw this article talking about pesto and it’s interesting origins, my curiosity got peaked. I haven’t tried it yet but I’m gonna try it out and then maybe try making a homemade one if I like it, vegan or not.

  8. I love how versatile pesto is & I also loved the addition of pumpkin seeds to give it a thicker mouth feel. Pesto is pretty close to being vegan (if you lose the Parmesan, that is). I wonder if you’ve used something along the lines of GO Veggie! Parmesan as a supplement? You’d get a familiar taste but with none of the dairy.

  9. Hi, this is a great pesto recipe. I really love pesto but as you said they always add cheese and I have lactose intolerance, so I can never eat pesto. I’ve never heard of the pumpkin seeds, bet this will add a little something. I was wondering if I have to use it immediately or how long would it last? Is it better to keep the pesto chilled or at room temperature?

    Thanks for the great recipe!

  10. Going through the recipe, I can’t help but think of some freshly baked garlic bread. I just had a late lunch, and I’m already thinking of spreading this on some garlic bread. Anyhow, I just copied the recipe instead. Hopefully, I can find fresh basil in our grocery store!

  11. Like I’ve said before, I’m not vegan- or even vegetarian- but these dishes just sound so delicious and I’m always interested in trying new things. I also like the addition of pumpkin seeds; it’s original, but that makes it so much better.

  12. Oooo – what a nice idea to add pumpkin seeds! I quite often make pesto and do occasionally vary the ingredients, adding sunflower seeds for example, but I shall certainly try your recipe. We have vegan friends coming to stay for easter so I need to apply my mind to cooking a little differently from the usual!
    Thank you for the neat idea.

  13. Now this is interesting, pesto was my favourite sauce and as I’m now exploring more plant based food options this looks like a great way to add variety to my diet. I have a feeling this could become a staple for me.

  14. I’m not vegan or vegetarian but some of my friends are, and this sounds like the perfect recipe for when I have them over for dinner. Basil is one of my favorite herbs and I have several plants in my garden, so getting enough won’t be a problem for me. I usually use pine nuts when I’m making it but I think the pumpkin seeds are a great addition, they will make up for the missing grated parmesan. Thank you!

  15. Yum! I’ve made something similar with my aunt a few days ago. We were craving pasta so much and we didn’t want to use the same spaghetti or cream sauces that we normally make so she and I decided to experiment. We bought prepacked basil, pines nuts, olive oil and tuna flakes. It’s very easy to whip up and I love how light the sauce is.

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