Have you ever wondered how to make basil pesto sauce? You only need 4 high-quality ingredients, namely fresh basil, pine nuts, cheese and garlic for this fresh pesto recipe. The best part of making this basil sauce is how easily it comes together in a food processor.
This, my friends, is the ultimate fast food.
All you need are a few quality ingredients, a whirl in your food processor and just like that… presto…. you have pesto!!!
Granted, this is not the authentic way to make pesto. The word pesto (probably) originates from the Italian verb “pestare” which can be loosely translated as “to step on, to press or to crush.”
Naturally, a mortar and pestle quickly come to mind when thinking of pesto. You could, of course, make your pesto this way, but an immersion blender or a food processor facilitates the whole process.
In fact, this uncooked herb sauce is made in less than 10 minutes and when combined with your favorite pasta, you have Pasta al pesto -a quick basil pesto pasta meal.
Since Italian cuisine is all about the quality of the ingredients, let’s first take a closer look at the ingredients and then how easy this homemade pesto comes together in a food processor.
Genovese pesto ingredients
The pesto ingredients I have listed are for a traditional pesto sauce recipe with origins from Genoa, in the region of Liguria.
The key to making a great pesto sauce is using the best, high-quality ingredients. Let’s appreciate these ingredients before making our fresh basil pesto.
As you can well imagine, we need fresh, bright green basil leaves to make this pesto. The fresher the better and so the best would be handpicked straight from your garden during those hot summer months. As this is not always possible, a basil plant in plastic pots sold in most grocery stores is a great option.
As fresh is key, avoid using any discolored leaves or wilted plants.
It should be mentioned that there are many varieties of basil available, each contributing a different flavor. If available in your farmers’ market or grocery store, try to get the sweet basil.
In Italian, these are referred to as pignoli nuts. They provide a rich and creamy texture to our sauce. Briefly toasting them in a pan over medium heat brings out their natural oils which contribute more flavor to our sauce.
Garlic is another important ingredient in making this basil pasta sauce. Rather than simply adding the cloves to the food processor, we are mincing the garlic and turning it into a paste before adding it to the food processor. This little step ensures there are no larger pieces of raw garlic in the pesto sauce. Once again, personal preference will dictate the number of cloves you use.
Some recipes will use parmesan cheese. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily. But what you need to know is that the amounts are not interchangeable.
Here is a great article explaining the difference between using Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheese in recipes. In summary, “3 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano = 2 ounces of Pecorino Romano”.
If you are interested in learning more about Pecorino, this article will take you through the process of making this artisanal Romano cheese in Tuscany.
Extra-virgin olive oil
A great pesto needs to have high-quality extra virgin olive oil. This is the only ingredient that is mandatory and irreplaceable.
How to make basil pesto sauce recipe
So this whole process begins by rinsing your fresh basil, about 3 cups worth, and taking it for a spin in your salad spinner. Since we want the basil to be as dry as possible, spread the leaves out over a tea towel and air dry while we get the rest of the main ingredients together.
We need four tablespoons of pine nuts for this basil sauce. Before we add them to the food processor, we will toast them, but just for a couple of minutes since we want them to retain their creaminess. If you want a nuttier taste, toast them for a little longer. Add them to your food processor as soon as they have cooled down.
This simple recipe calls for 2 cloves of freshly minced garlic. Yes, you read correctly -we need to mince the garlic before adding it to the food processor. This little step will ensure no larger pieces of raw garlic in the pesto sauce. Once again, personal preference will dictate the total amount of garlic cloves used.
We need to add about a ½ cup of freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese to the food processor.
So by now, your basil should be dry, your toasted pine nuts should be at room temperature and your cheese of preference is grated. Add them all to the food processor and pulse 4-5 times.
With the food processor on low, slowly add the olive oil to the basil-garlic-nut mixture in a thin stream and for about 30-60 seconds or until desired consistency, according to your preference.
And there you have it, with just a few simple ingredients, you can make a traditional basil pesto sauce.
How to store pesto
If not using immediately, transfer to a sterile small jar, top with a layer of olive oil and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Adding ½ teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice helps the basil retain its green color.
Food safety is an issue anytime garlic is immersed in an oxygen-free environment, like pesto. To avoid any potential botulism, use or refrigerate pesto immediately and use it within 3 days.
Freezing pesto: If you plan to freeze the pesto, there are a few modifications to the recipe.
First, make sure you blanch the fresh basil leaves. This simple process helps prevent the basil from turning brown. Simply add fresh basil to boiling water. Boil for 5-10 seconds. Remove basil and immediately plunge it into an ice water bath. Place on tea towels, pat dry and proceed with the recipe.
Second, omit the addition of cheese when processing your pesto for the best results. You will get a better product by adding the cheese to your pesto when it is defrosted.
Third, use the ice cube method to freeze the pesto. This allows you to drizzle a little olive oil over the top, thus preventing contact with air and discoloration. When frozen, place the pesto cubes in an airtight container or Ziploc freezer bag and use them within 1 month for the best quality.
What else can you use basil pesto sauce for besides pasta?
- use it as a spread along with this spicy pepper spread in focaccia sandwiches, burgers or piadina;
- stir it in stews, risotto, frittatas or soups;
- it’s great to use as a topping for pizza;
- use as a spread on baked/grilled chicken or fish;
- add a little more olive oil and spread it over roasted root vegetables;
- mix it in a crustless quiche before baking;
- add a little olive oil and vinegar to create a basil vinaigrette, which is great to use as a salad dressing;
- combine it with mayonnaise or yogurt when making potato, seafood or pasta salads;
- use as a spread when making bruschetta;
…and more! Remember, the pesto we have made is much like a concentrate, so a spoonful goes a long way.
Can you replace the pine nuts?
Absolutely. If pine nuts are not readily available, they can easily be replaced by walnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds or any combination of nuts. Remember to give them a little toasting before using them in this basil pesto recipe.
Can you use roasted garlic in this recipe?
Of course! Using roasted garlic will create a milder pesto that is equally tasty.
Can you mix pesto with ricotta?
You can create a creamy pesto sauce by adding ¼ cup of homemade ricotta. Simply follow the recipe with the addition of ricotta. This produces a milder and creamier variation of pesto.
What are some alternative pesto recipes?
Pesto can be made with red pepper, parsley, garlic scapes, avocado, kale or even beet greens to name but a few. The possibilities are truly endless!
I’ve been making this flavorful sauce, also called pesto alla Genovese, for decades, without a real recipe, just like my mom. I had to take out the measuring cups and the tablespoons for this one.
As always, feel free to experiment and switch things around. There is no perfect recipe for basil sauce pesto. The combinations depend on what your personal preferences are. Play around with the amounts and the ingredients and have fun experimenting.
I hope you can find 10 minutes and make this wonderful basil pesto… I would love to hear about how you use this pesto sauce!
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★★★★★ If you have made this classic pesto recipe, I would love to hear about it in the comments below and be sure to rate the recipe!
How to Make Basil Pesto
- ¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- ½ cup Romano cheese grated
- 3 cups basil leaves fresh, loosely packed, rinsed and dry
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Over medium heat, toast pine nuts in a pan on stove top for a few minutes. Set aside to cool down.
- Pulse together pine nuts, minced garlic, cheese and basil leaves in a food processor until coarsely chopped.
- Drizzle the olive oil while the food processor is whirling until smooth and thick, approximately 30-60 seconds.
- Season to taste.
- 1 serving=1 tablespoon
- When toasting the pine nuts, make sure you move the pan around and stay close. You do not want your perfectly toasted pine nuts to become burnt....believe me when I tell you it takes seconds.
- Measure the fresh, whole basil leaves by packing them loosely in your measuring cup. Be sure to remove the stems.
This post was originally published on September 30, 2014. It was republished on July 13, 2018 with updated content, photos and a video, and again on July 9, 2021 with updated content. Thanks for watching and sharing!
Maria, I love reading your recipes. Basil and basil pesto are one of my favorite things. I often add some jalapenos pepper to the pesto, especially when I make cilantro pesto, for that extra kick. I have never blanched the leaves before freezing but might try that.
My pleasure Sherry! Thanks so much for sharing!